Azerbaijani labor migrants, unprotected and adrift during pandemic

Author: Gular Abbasova

“Right now I have some money and my parents have their pensions. But later…I do not know what will happen.” 

Akif*, 39, is used to making sacrifices to care for his six-person family. The household’s sole breadwinner, he had been living illegally in Moscow and sending half of his income from his clothing and household goods store to his wife, children and parents in Shamakhi district of Azerbaijan, 120 km from capital Baku.

But now his shop in Moscow is closed, due to the quarantine, and he is stuck in Azerbaijan, where he was updating his travel documents when the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

“If I had stayed in Russia, it would have been difficult for me. I could have asked friends for help in an emergency but otherwise would have had to rely on myself,” Akif says.

As an illegal worker, Akif would not have been eligible for free medical treatment if he had gotten sick in Russia. While some years he manages to get a 12-month work permit from the Russian government, sometimes he does not. That means every three months he has to leave the country and reenter.

“Russian law allows Azerbaijani citizens to stay in the country for 90 days. Migrants use the system to enter the country and set up businesses on behalf of Russian citizens. Then they remain in Russia, working illegally,” Azer Allahveranov, the chair of the Public Council at Azerbaijan’s State Migration Service says.

A reported 138,747 Azerbaijani nationals who registered for employment in Russia in 2019. But Ilkin Nazarov, an expert on the labor market, says it is impossible to know how many Azerbaijani labor migrants are in Russia right now. Likewise, Nazarov notes, there is little information about how many Azerbaijani labor migrants are in Ukraine or other former Soviet republics, which are easy for Azerbaijani citizens to enter.

That makes it incredibly difficult for the government to arrange to bring their compatriots home now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Allahveranov.

Fuad, 51, is stuck in Kyiv, where he was working in construction before the pandemic. Now, due to quarantine restrictions, he is out of work and cannot return to Azerbaijan.

“No one here cares about our health or our life. We’re all worried about our family, and our family is worried about us,” he says.

Fuad has been working as a laborer in Kyiv for a year and says he sends 200-300 dollars every month to his family in Sabirabad, a town about 170km from capital Baku. Now he cannot send his family anything. Fuad says the situation is getting desperate for him and his five roommates, who are also from Azerbaijan.

While they get some food from a local shop on credit, Fuad says the group worries about how they will survive if the quarantine continues.

“We only go out for food. We spend all day in the apartment, waiting for the quarantine to end,” he says.

The group has already tried appealing to the Azerbaijan Embassy in Ukraine for help but were told there was nothing the embassy could do to help.

“They do not help us financially or even arrange for us to return to Azerbaijan,” he says.

“They just said: ‘We cannot send you to Azerbaijan, the borders are shut, there are no flights. Do whatever you want.’”

It is difficult to bring migrant workers back home because the situation is unpredictable, notes Azer Allahveranov, the chair of the Public Council at Azerbaijan’s State Migration Service.

“There may be cases of force majeure in which it is important for an Azerbaijani citizen to return to the country. In this case, the relevant authorities must take the necessary measures, of course,” he says.

“It is very difficult to develop a mechanism to bring all of them back to Azerbaijan during the border shutdown.”

He adds that they do not know how many labor migrants made their own way back to Azerbaijan due to the pandemic before the country shut its borders.

The government has called on Azerbaijani citizens residing in Russia to register at the Azerbaijani Embassy in Moscow or consulates elsewhere in the country. On April 18 the “I’m going home” portal was launched for Azerbaijani citizens wishing to return to their homeland from abroad. At the initial stage, Azerbaijani citizens living in Russia will be able to register through this portal. Citizens will be allowed to enter the country in groups, in the order they registered. The government plans to bring 200-400 Azerbaijani citizens home at a time.

The government plans on accepting the first round of applications on April 23, and then it will close for five days to allow for the flights to be organized. After the first group is flown home, the portal will reopen for the second round of registrations. Citizens will be responsible for paying for their own tickets home. 

Hikmet Hajiyev, the head of the Foreign Policy Department at the Presidential Administration, said there are no plans to restore passenger flights in May. Cargo flights will continue.

Ilkin Nazarov, the labor market expert, says the government should learn from this situation and develop a better mechanism for assisting citizens abroad.

“An information system should be set up in the future so that the government can intervene quickly in such a situation,” he notes.

Fuad estimates that there are another 20 Azerbaijani labor migrants in Kyiv right now struggling to pay for food and lodging during the pandemic.

He notes that he and his roommates were supposed to work through the spring and summer.

“If the situation improves, we have to stay here in Kyiv and work. We don’t have other choice, we have to support our family,” he says.

Fuad speaks with his family every day, and worries how they will survive now that he cannot send money to them every month.

To make ends meet, the family has already sold its chickens as the eldest son lost his job, too, due to the quarantine.

Allahveranov of the State Migration Service says families like Fuad’s should qualify for social assistance under the government’s plan to combat the coronavirus. Under the plan, around 200,000 unemployed people will receive 190 manats (around 111 dollars).

Families like Tural’s need 500-600 manats a month to cover their expenses. Prior to the pandemic, Tural supported his family by working in construction in Kaliningrad, Russia. But he was not able to return to Russia after Azerbaijan closed its borders in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Today he is with his family in Lerik, a town in southern Azerbaijan. The six-member family now depends solely on his mother’s 230-manat pension.

“If we didn’t have fruits and vegetables in our own yard, we probably wouldn’t be able to survive,” he said. “It is impossible to feed so many people only with my mother’s pension. We have to take a little bit of everything and manage these days.”

Tural says it is difficult to plan because no one knows how long the situation will last and when—or if—he will be able to return to Russia for work.

“If the quarantine lasts a long time, I will have to stay and work in Lerik,” he says. “I think I will buy and feed the cattle, then sell it and make money for living.”

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