Germany leads as a destination country for migrants from Azerbaijan ahead of other European states. It is hard to provide an accurate number but according to various expert estimates, Germany is home to approximately 20 to 30 thousand Azerbaijani migrants. It is also hard to identify one “migrant community” - the group is too diverse. It is possible, however, to provide an informal account in broad strokes, a portrait of a contemporary migrant from Azerbaijan in Germany.
Eleven thousand citizens of Azerbaijan had received residence permits in Germany between 1990 and 2016 says the International Centre for Development of Migration Policy. To compare, France takes second place, and has hosted just over three thousand.
Speaking of any mass migration, the essential question to consider is of course: “why”? The current wave of migration from all post-Soviet countries roughly began in the early 90s. Back then, it was predominantly ethnically mixed families and minorities who fled Azerbaijan fearing war and desolation. The outflow of migrants eased as the political situation in the country stabilized. 2010 was the year migrants suddenly began to leave in higher numbers again, but now the causes were different.
Indices by international organizations that rate freedoms, liberties and rights have had Azerbaijan steadily at the end of their annual lists for years. It holds 167th place out of 180 in the freedom of press rating by Reporters Without Borders; rating 193 out of 209 on civil liberties by Freedom House; 129 out of 179 on perception of corruption according to Transparency International. In its turn, Amnesty International, speaks annually about the human rights violations, repressions and the like in the country.
Add to the above a weakly developed economy reliant solely upon the oil sector, a myriad infrastructure problems as well as problems in education and health care and constant inflation of prices for everything from alcohol to tobacco to energy consumption.
All in all, Azerbaijan offers reasons to leave for all tastes.
A caveat should be made when it comes to economic migration. As a rule, Azerbaijanis whose primary motivation is cash earnings tend to travel to Russia, Turkey or Ukraine. At least 600,000 work migrants from Azerbaijan reside in Russia alone. Europe on the other hand is for those attracted by the superior welfare state services that could support them and those with higher education and professional qualifications who crave self-realization rather than just a satisfactory income.
The number of Azerbaijanis that had requested political asylum in Germany was at 635, reported four months before 2021 was over. These numbers were integrally higher in the years before the COVID -19 pandemic. Regardless, these figures do not reveal the real scale of politically motivated migration from Azerbaijan. A vast number of those applying for political asylum in Germany and other European countries have very little to do with politics or being victims of repression. According to Sergey Rumyantsev, a researcher at the Centre of Independent Social Research (CISR) in Berlin, these people might have economic motivations or some of them, being wealthy enough already, just do not see a future for themselves and their children in their home country.
“This does not concern Azerbaijani migrants alone. Since Germany accepts specifically political refugees, there are also those who present themselves as such, while migrating for quite different reasons. Informal networks exist, that for a set price direct people on a more or less verified route, first having instructed them how to behave. And so, if you one figures out the rules of the game, they can stay in one or another EU country for years, while essentially having no right to receive status.”
There are real political migrants in Germany as well, of course. These are mainly journalists, political activists and members of opposition parties, who have had in one way or another the unpleasant experience of dealing with their homeland’s security services or even those who have served prison sentences of several years for their activities back home. In fact, two such opposition members were deported from Germany in the summer 2021. Once in Azerbaijan, they were soon arrested on alleged drug trafficking charges.
At the same time, many of the Azerbaijanis who have migrated to Germany have not applied for asylum and have no political status, yet their actual motivations to leave were having different political beliefs or simply a search for freedom, as abstract as that might sound.
It must be noted that the Azerbaijani government, which ardently denies all accusations of human rights violations or political oppression, is also quite active in Germany with lobbying its interests. A scandal broke out at the Bundestag in the spring months of 2020. It then came out that at least two representatives of the then ruling Christian Democrat Union were receiving bribes from Azerbaijan to lobby and create a positive image for the country at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The same representatives also helped hire regular cohorts of Azerbaijani interns loyal to the regime.
The breaking point for political migration from Azerbaijan can be considered the years 2013-14, when the authorities began to “tighten the screws” following several protest rallies decrying deaths of military conscripts. Repressions have grown more severe, with many known journalists and opposition members thrown behind bars, as the government ratified a new law, factually cutting off oxygen for the independent media and NGOs financed with grants from abroad.
The two devaluations of the Azerbaijani currency manat in 2015 served as the last drop, motivating even those who have generally never cared for the niceties such as freedom, equality and fraternity to seek better life abroad.
Azerbaijani migrants are scattered throughout all of Germany. There are more of them in large cities such as Berlin or Cologne, but some are found in places, which they didn’t even know existed.
Here are some of their stories:
It’s October and the sun rises late. Leipzig looks unfriendly on such early mornings. It’s cold, shut-in, and not even slightly glad to see you. But as the day goes on and sunrays slide across the clock on an old church building, the town begins to smile, if just a little.
- Gorgeous view you have
- Gorgeous but loud. The church bells ring every fifteen minutes.
These words are soon confirmed by the heavy ring of the church bells that fills the kitchen. Afgan Mukhtarli, a journalist and former political prisoner, moved to Leipzig in spring 2020. Since then, he has learned how to roll cigarettes in the local fashion, started to cycle for the first time since his teenage years, and can already explain himself, with varying degrees of quality, in German language when he shops.
Mr. Mukhtarli, known for investigative journalism about corruption at the highest levels of power, moved with his family to Tbilisi, Georgia in 2014. Here he was kidnapped and returned to Baku in 2017, where he was charged with illegal border crossing and contraband and sentenced to six years in prison.
His early release came in March 2020, and was thanks in part to the efforts of international human rights organizations who have mounted a campaign of pressure on the Azerbaijani government. Mr. Mukhtarli was taken straight from the prison to the airport and flown to Germany, where his wife and daughter were waiting for him. The move was formally carried out by German immigration services under family reunification. However, the journalist says that Azerbaijani authorities simply do not ever want to see him again and agreed to let him out only on that condition.
“But I will return. After all, I am a citizen of Azerbaijan, I don’t even have status of a political migrant. What basis is there for them to not let me in?”
Mr. Mukhtarli’s wife, the journalist Leyla Mustafayeva, on the contrary, hopes that they won’t have to move again.
“I am tired to be honest. First, we moved to Georgia, then, when Afgan was jailed, I had to move here with a small child and apply for asylum, move between temporary apartments… All this is stressful for our daughter, we have to think about her as well. I feel good here, I learned the language, made friends. I want to put down roots already.”
Afgan Mukhtarli, on the other hand, is suffering from lack of a social circle. Tbilisi was home to many Azerbaijani (so-called) dissidents, with whom he formed something like a club. Plus there would always be visitors from Baku. He feels alone in Leipzig, though he has cooperated with political migrants based in other German municipalities. Together, they have managed to organize at least twenty public actions in the recent two years. A media project was in the works at the time of writing.
“I like the nature here. I like that Leipzig is a cultured and democratic city. And of course, it’s comfortable here, overall. But comfort too can tire you. And then, it’s not right to live here and take for granted the comfortable conditions created by others. We too, after all, can create the same conditions in the Caucasus.”
Logman lives at the intersection of Karl Marx Allee and Strasse der Pariser Kommuner. Well okay, not right there, but close. And this is quite symbolic.
- A lucky coincidence?
-Where else should a lefty live in Berlin…
Back in Azerbaijan, Logman was a member of a marxist organization and took part in activism on the left at large. However, following the aforementioned events of 2014, activism turned risky business.
Danger hung in the air and though the left needed not be afraid (no one took them seriously anyways), enthusiasm waned. Logman had graduated from a medical institute, served in the army, and spent a couple of years fruitlessly job hunting before he realized that it was time to leave.
“I never had plans to migrate. But the political situation in Azerbaijan was becoming too oppressive. I had no work. And at that same time many of my coursemates started to leave for work in Germany. So I began learning the German language in 2015 and as soon as 2016 found myself in the small town of Ansbach in Bavaria.”
Logman and his girlfriend Masuma had moved to Berlin in January 2021, following the COVID-19 lockdown during which they also thought about returning to Azerbaijan, going through a sort of an existential-migration crisis. Logman now works in a Berlin psychiatry and therapy clinic while taking courses to better his qualifications at Humboldt University. Masuma, a pianist, is starting to look for work.
“I worked in a musical academy in Baku. I earned pennies, but was not planning to change anything. I ended up here only because of Logman. I came to join him here in 2018. I registered for long-term courses in German language to have an official reason for my stay in the country. Now I hope to get hired at a music school, for instance, but this sector has not quite come back to life yet since the lockdown.”
They visit Baku once a year for a week or two. The Baku they don’t miss. Or maybe they do miss it after all. There, their friends stayed. Or perhaps they did not. Logman’s comrades like him migrated to different places. Masuma’s girlfriends have created homes, have children. Therefore, Baku is now only home to their parents and memories.
“The only thing I feel nostalgic about is friends, with whom we shared political views and common goals. I feel nostalgic about that atmosphere, our circle. This is what’s so lacking. I have not managed to find similar “brothers in mind” in Germany yet.”
To fight this nostalgia, Logman had decided to unplug from the Azerbaijani discourse and its news bubble. He focused on Germany instead.
“But I was soon bored. I realized that part of my interests and goals will always be tied with Azerbaijan, and made peace with it. Perhaps, this is a “curse” of all migrants - to get stuck forever somewhere in between two countries, two realities.”
Maira looks at the world around her from above, a look that’s seething superiority not everyone can pull off. Maira is British shorthair kitten. A permission to pet herself is the maximum nicety she allows a guest.
“We probably just began to feel ourselves at home here once we took in Maira. In other words, when we were able to allow ourselves to have a pet not fearing that soon we will move again, and the animal won’t have anywhere to go.”
This point came only six years after their stay in Germany. Sevil, Sergey and their two daughters have lived here for eleven years. Back then, in 2010, it was not that they were “going somewhere”, rather they had to leave. Germany became home not as a result of a premade plan, but of circumstance.
“By 2010 we had both experienced life abroad through various scholarships and we wanted to leave Baku and allow our children to live in a different country and learn a foreign language. Many of our relatives and friends had already gone by that time as well. A vacuum formed around us, one defined by the absence of people close to our spirit.”
They had been lucky: both received grants to study and conduct research in Germany. At the moment, it seemed a temporary measure, and that they will return to Baku in a couple of years. But the “German stopover” dragged on, and Sevil now trusts that this is the final station in their migratory route. At the same time, she still does not have residence status here.
“It has become very difficult to receive a residence permit in recent years. Even though I have a German Ph.D. degree and work in my field, it has still been impossible to get a permanent resident permit. Sergey also works in social sciences and this sector is complex and unstable. What helps us is our experience and that we specialize in post-Soviet countries, which we know well and understand.”
They live in Mitte - a gentrified central district. Berlin is at its end days of a late warm autumn before it descends into chilly hypochondria in November. The kitchen smells of roasted pumpkin. There are piles of Russian books around, which they bring back from their frequent working trips to Russia. Baku visits happen less, but they do go to visit family and the few friends still staying there. Though every year they feel more distance even with them, their views diverging on many subjects.
“It took us a lot of time to get accustomed to the local bureaucracy and many everyday rules. But in the end we got used to all of it. Except, perhaps, the fact that the local school education is not designed to prepare children for applying to university upon graduation. To us, as parents, this is strange. But, probably, the problem is with us and our expectations, and not in the “imperfection” of the German education system.”
Their older daughter is searching for herself in the arts. The youngest is in secondary school and teaches Russian to her Egyptian girlfriend. Sevil is thinking of starting to learn Yiddish: no practical benefits to be reaped, but seems it should be fairly simple for a German speaker.
“Berlin is good for its diversity and a lack of a dominant culture. Here, everyone, including a migrant, can find a circle of friends, an activity, an atmosphere to one’s liking. Also, one can lose their stereotypes about aging here. Age no longer dictates how one must live.”
The thin white fog streams down the hills to flood the streets of what looks like a small town in the middle of nowhere at first glance. On the second glance, or even the third, the impression does not change. Mobile data signal connects but with interruptions.
-Tell the truth, are you not bored here?
-No. I come from a small village myself. On the contrary, large cities tire me.
Gaib and his family have lived the last four years in Biberach, in the south of Germany. He works at the local psychiatry clinic (it might seem that Azerbaijan has no psychiatrists left these days, and that they all set out for Germany, but that's just a coincidence). However, compared to Logman, this doctor had no trouble getting work back home.
“Both my wife and I had good jobs. But our prospects promised anxious times ahead. Most importantly - education for our children and our potential retirement pensions. In this regard, there were no guarantees, no confidence in the next day. Thus we decided to move somewhere where these guarantees are in place.”
Being a practical and risk averse couple, Gaib and his wife weighed their options thoroughly, and decided in favour of Germany over Canada. The demand for doctors and favourable feedback from acquaintances that have already moved here played the deciding factors.
“I am glad with how it all worked out. I am comfortable, no stress, I don’t feel like a stranger. This year I visited Baku for the first time since we left. It was very nice to meet old friends from university days but I understood that I do not miss anything or anyone except a few people.”
The couple has not made new friends yet. Rather, only their children have, while the social circle of the parents is limited to colleagues and a couple of Russian speaking migrant families. They commute to Stuttgart or Munich for entertainment, and drive to Italy or Switzerland for vacations. Generally speaking, easy access to travel within the EU is one of the “bonuses” that Azerbaijani migrants won’t stop raving about.
“I like that when problems arise, like COVID-19, the stress is distributed equally on the society and the government. I also like that there is normal infrastructure everywhere, even in the smallest and least populated town.”
Gaib does not like, on the other hand, that he discovered Germany to be a much more religious country than the formally Muslim but de facto secular Azerbaijan. This was an unpleasant discovery, though with time, it turned out he could get used to it, as long as no one tried to pull him in.
Gaib pays only slight attention to events in Azerbaijan and Germany. He says he is not interested in either and that he does not have a clear civic stance and never did. However, back in Baku he did write satirical poems, including some on social and political themes and even performed them. The first year after the move the poems Gaib wrote had lyrical themes of migration, which later disappeared.
“We lose ourselves in capital cities, drinking beers and smoothies,
at team-buildings, trainings, meetings,
We find each other in hotels
in apartments and in hostels,
in small towns”
Munich. An afterword.
A wet Saturday morning is a quilted patchwork of sounds. Rain drops on an awning of a street cafe, the noise of leisure walkers, the ring of beer mugs clinking, the slightly out of place theme from the Godfather performed by a busker, a quiet pop of a champagne bottle over at the next table (some people know how to live - champagne first thing in the morning).
-Let’s do this with no names. And also, I am not representative am I..,
-This is my story and I know better who is representative and who is not.
-Still, though I was born in Azerbaijan, I grew up in another country, and lived in Baku for only five years.
-…almost eleven already. The first year you miss Baku. Second year you get used to things. By the third, you go back and you have culture shock.
It is not difficult to look up numbers for just how many young (and not so young) people from Azerbaijan annually apply to German higher learning institutions. There are many. The local education is high quality and affordable if not fully free. It is more difficult to gather just how many return to Azerbaijan once they earn their various degrees. Leaving to study abroad with the hope of “hanging on” by finding work and staying is the best way to get out for young people with ambition. Medics and computer programmers succeed at this. Representatives of humanitarian professions - not as easily. But the hunt is more dear than captivity.
-I was not planning to leave forever. Thought I would graduate and return. And fight for a bright future…
-But what happened then?
-Well then I liked it here.
Brain drain, even though the term has not been used in some while (seems it fell out of fashion), pretty much sums it up. Specialists of many important fields are leaving Azerbaijan.
- Of course, Azerbaijani society is negatively impacted by the constant outflow of at least somewhat talented and promising young people. But what is there to do in Azerbaijan for these people with their European diplomas, degrees and corresponding views about professional work? This is not in demand in Azerbaijan. It seems the authorities only benefit from them not returning and the government is not interested in deep rooted reforms that these people could bring.
“These people” - doctors learning “medical German”, so they could prescribe vitamin D for sun deficiency to other migrants like them; economists from a country with an economy loose as a baby tooth; lawyers, who have adapted to the labyrinths of new legislature, but who also remember that “resisting a representative of authority” is the article 221.2.2. of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan, the one most often charged for taking part in an unsanctioned protest;
literature majors with their not-so-hot on the market knowledge of the works of Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann; IT nerds, who will find work even in hell: all “these people '' are building new lives in a new place, don’t suffer from nostalgia that much, but when socializing with one another, definitely discuss the events of a country and region which ceased being home, but has not grown strange either.
Those of them who took part in some sort of social or political life, continue to do so remotely. Or at least, they try to. Even if it’s in the form of commentary, criticism and analysis of the current situation and events. This migrant “remote work” can even be seen as more effective since real political life has ceased to exist and has little hope in the foreseeable future, and the traditional opposition’s work amounts to posts on social media.
At least, the better written and objective posts and articles written in English or Russian grab a much larger audience. This or another way, the need to participate in the life of the country, to talk about it, most often never dissipates and sometimes even grows stronger once you find yourself in a different place and begin to reassess and systematize your whole past experience.
“I was a post-Soviet person and I haven’t changed. Eleven years in Germany have not turned me into a German. And I still identify myself with the collapsed Soviet Union, which I have not even witnessed.”
But after all, do “these people” consider themselves political migrants? The answer is no. At least because the term itself carries a negative weight and is associated not so much with dissent than with opportunism:
“Many of those that migrated specifically as victims of the regime now celebrate that same regime and, it looks like, are ready to return to the embrace of the authorities who will have “forgiven” them. On the other hand, those who earnestly criticized the regime and society while living in Azerbaijan continue to do this here as well. They did not ask for asylum, did not make a career off their criticism, but migrated only thanks to their knowledge and talents. And regarding them as political migrants is even somehow derogatory, as if it means that they were afraid of the government or that they are indebted to it for their migration.”
The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region.