Baku, Azerbaijan, October 2018
Baku, Azerbaijan, October 2018 Photographer: Meydan TV

Europe at all costs: The pitfalls of pursuing a better life abroad

During the last ten years, more than 40,000 Azerbaijanis have applied for asylum in various countries – a number comparable to the population of a large town. The migrants take great risks. Some fall victim to elaborate migration fraud schemes and lose large amounts of money before even leaving the country. Those who return to Azerbaijan, often because they have been deported, may face interrogation on their return home. Still, many people leave for Europe. This is a Meydan TV report on what might await them.

Mehman Hasanov, who left Azerbaijan four years ago, paid €10,000 for what he believed was guaranteed refugee status in Germany.

His saga began in 2014, when he was fired from his job and searched for companies that help those seeking to migrate abroad.

Soon, he found people who offered to help him complete his visa application forms. They also provided him with forged documents that they said would pretty much guarantee he obtained asylum in Germany. Among the documents created for him was one that identified him as a member of an opposition party.

Azerbaijani migrant Mehman Hasanov
Azerbaijani migrant Mehman Hasanov Photographer: Meydan TV

His experience is typical of many would-be migrants, who pay intermediaries for documents designed to help them win asylum and the promise of assistance with finding a job in their country of destination.

The number of Azerbaijanis moving to Europe increased during the last three years. In 2017, a total of 6,000 Azerbaijanis applied for asylum in Europe. More than half of them – 54 percent – tried their luck in Germany.

According to Alovsat Aliyev, former head of the Baku-based Azerbaijan Migration Center, immigration peaked in 2016, when a total of 6,700 Azerbaijanis applied for asylum in Germany alone.

In search for a better life

A survey conducted by the Center for Sociological Monitoring says 91 percent of respondents know at least one person in their circle of friends and acquaintances who moved abroad due to economic hardship in Azerbaijan. 58 percent of respondents thought that low salaries and poor education in their home country were key factors, while 22 percent named the high level of corruption as the main reason for people leaving. For the rest of participants, the main incentive to move abroad was the effective social security system of European countries.

Many migrants hope to find a good job and be granted asylum when they move. Hasanov was one of those and said the agency promised to find him a job in Germany within a year.

That promise fell through, along with the guarantee of asylum. Hasanov eventually managed to find work on his own.

‘I was granted a several-year residence permit because I found a job while my application was still being processed,’ he says.

An engineer with a degree from Azerbaijan’s State Oil Academy, he is now working as a water supply system specialist, but had he not found the job, he would have been deported.

A collection of 54 passports

According to Alovsat Aliyev, the thousands of Azerbaijanis who dream of moving abroad are a convenient target for scammers. In his experience, most of the people who left during the last few years spent large amounts of money on so-called travel agencies, which arrange not only travel but make other promises to migrants, in return for hefty charges. This way, they end up paying up to ten times as much as they would for a normal tourist visit, he says.

Alovsat Aliyev, head of the Azerbaijan Migration Center
Alovsat Aliyev, head of the Azerbaijan Migration Center Photographer: Meydan TV

He says that a visa for one person is usually around €2,000, but that costs increase if the services also include air tickets, airport pickup or settling in a refugee camp. The cost for a family could reach up to €20,000–30,000, and to raise the required amount, Aliyev explains, many people sell their homes

‘They promise people that they will obtain refugee status after paying the money. This is the first thing that should alarm you,’ Aliyev says. ‘No one can guarantee that, not even if your documents are genuine and comply with all the requirements. There’s not even a guarantee that a European border office won’t send a tourist back home’, he continues.

Some victims report the scams to the authorities, but Aliyev says that the police usually do not accept such complaints. He claims that directors of several such “travel agencies” were recently detained, but then released again.

Cases of fraud are not always reported. ‘Many feel betrayed but still do not go to the police because they prefer temporary or even illegal stay in Europe over staying in their home country,’ Aliyev says.

According to him, some migrants do find illegal jobs and manage to recover their investment.

The “asylum traders” Mehman Hasanov dealt with told him they could ‘fix everything’ for €10,000, and that they had connections in Azerbaijani government agencies as well as assistants in Germany.

'When I arrived here [in Germany], one of them met with me,' recounts Hasanov.

Authorities in European countries are wary of those who charge migrants and promise assistance.

In March 2018, the German press reported the arrest of an Azerbaijani woman who allegedly had been organizing illegal relocation to Germany for seven Azerbaijanis. The investigation revealed her connection with travel agencies as well as the amount of money she got from her clients - €32,000.

In one case, she purchased a tourist trip to Prague for her clients and helped them apply for a visa at the Czech Embassy in Azerbaijan. From Prague, the migrants traveled to Germany, where the suspect took their passports and brought them to the center for asylum seekers in the town of Bielefeld, for which she allegedly received €2,500.

During a house search, police officers found a collection of 54 Azerbaijani passports and driving licenses. The investigation continues, with police reportedly suspecting there may be more victims to these schemes.  

The pretext for taking away migrants’ passports is so the local authorities cannot find out where the asylum seekers came from, Hasanov expalins. When talking to the migration service, asylum seekers may say they lost their documents.

Mentally difficult conditions

Newly-arrived migrants often realize that the reality of a new country does not live up to what they had expected.

Migrants who have moved abroad report that the process of applying for asylum can mean waiting for years and living in closed camps with prison-like rules, small rooms in dorms, or even underground bunkers.

Journalist Tural Gurbanli has applied for asylum in the Netherlands.

‘I have been living in a refugee camp not far from Amsterdam for a year now. The three of us, me, my wife, and my daughter, live in a small room. It’s not easy, mentally’, he says.

Journalist Tural Gurbanli and family, picture from personal archive
Journalist Tural Gurbanli and family, picture from personal archive

According to Alovsat Aliyev, most Azerbaijanis applying for asylum in Europe say they are politically persecuted, and Aliyev claims that the majority of them are lying. Statistically, the German government approves only 15 percent or less of applications filed by Azerbaijani citizens. Those whose applications are denied are deported. During the first nine months of 2018, it was decided that 1,300 would be deported. Some of them don’t give up: 1,152 Azerbaijanis re-filed their applications with the German government in 2017, and only 8.9 percent of them were granted this status.

Migrants facing deportation from European countries sometimes react badly. There have been cases of attempted suicide and resistance to the police. In January 2018, Azerbaijanis about to be deported even took security and immigration officers hostage.

According to Alovsat Aliyev, the ordeal continues once the deported arrive back in Azerbaijan. He says that special services question every returned person aggressively. ‘They ask which opposition representatives they saw in Europe, which activists, and what kind of aid they send to the families of political prisoners, about the organizers and who else is involved.’