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Hundreds of Afghan refugees in Azerbaijan often find themselves stuck in legal limbo and mired in poverty. For many who are supported by the UN, dwindling funding and a lack of tailored intervention threaten to complicate their situation further.
‘I escaped the Taliban’s oppression. After my father, mother, and brother were killed, I left Kabul.’
Since leaving Afghanistan 13 years ago, Kandagha Amiri, 46, has lived in Azerbaijan, where has received asylum. He told OC Media that since his arrival he has not once thought of returning to Afghanistan.
Amiri is one of more than 600 Afghan refugees living in Azerbaijan — a similar number are asylum-seekers without official refugee status. Due to a complex legal structure that straddles both government and UN institutions, many have found themselves lacking even the most basic living provisions.
Afghans make up the largest group of asylum seekers and refugees in Azerbaijan according to data from the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.
Once Kandagha Amiri received a permanent residence permit and was legally allowed to work, the former farmer took a series of manual labour jobs, working as a courier. He also met a young Azerbaijani woman, Shahla. The couple married in 2007 and had two daughters.
But those days are over.
A decline in Kandagha’s health has left him incapable of doing the types of jobs he once did. Amiri is diabetic and has suffered two strokes. His wife too is unemployed as she also suffers from a number of chronic health conditions.
The Amiri family receives a monthly stipend of ₼215 ($125) from the UNHCR. Kandagha also receives certain medications for free but says he has not been able to obtain some essential medicines for his diabetes.
‘The polyclinic says they don’t have any’, he says.
‘We have to pay ₼150 ($88) of the ₼215 provided by the UN to cover rent and utilities for the house’, he says. He also complains that the provision of certain home goods, such as clothing, blankets, and toiletries has ceased for the past three years, squeezing their budget even further.
Shahla laments the low monthly allowance provided by the UN and the fact that her family does not receive targeted social aid from the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection.
According to the ministry’s chief spokesperson, Fazil Talibov, foreign family members permanently residing in Azerbaijan are also considered when assigning social assistance.
‘The procedure for applying and assigning targeted state social aid is done through the VEMTAS e-infrastructure. A citizen may also approach the relevant departments of the ministry, depending on their registered address’, he told OC Media.
Amiri’s daughters are aged eleven and nine; both are in school. According to Shahla, the UN previously provided the family ₼300 ($175) per year for both girls to help buy school supplies. But now the money has stopped.
According to a spokesperson for the UNHCR in Azerbaijani, the organisation distributes annual cash transfers to refugee families to enable them to buy school uniforms and other school supplies for their children at the beginning of each school year.
‘This assistance used to cover all refugee families including those with children of Azerbaijani nationality at primary or secondary schools’, the spokesperson told OC Media. But, they added, in 2019, due to scarcity of funding, the UNHCR was not able to include children with Azerbaijani nationality from such mixed refugee families into the list of school allowance beneficiaries.
Even for those who continued to receive funds, the UNHCR was forced to reduce the amount per child from ₼150–₼200 ($90–$120) to ₼100 ($59) ’.
Abdul Khaliq, 40, also fled the war in Afghanistan. He has been living in Azerbaijan since 2006. He has no registered legal address. Therefore, the State Migration Service cannot issue a residence permit for him and he cannot legally work.
The UN has issued a document confirming Abdullah's asylum, which prevents his deportation from Azerbaijan. He used to be registered at his mother-in-law's address until she sold the house.
Neither he nor his family could register afterwards. He has been living in Azerbaijan since 2006.
A former vegetable seller in Afghanistan, now he does odd jobs, including gardening, to try to make ends meet.
Abdul's wife Matanat is Azerbaijani. She is also unemployed.
‘We pay ₼100 ($59) in rent monthly for our home. We are now delaying [paying rent] for the second month in a row due to a lack of money. My daughter goes to school, but I can't send my son Mohammed to school because I can't afford to meet his needs.’
Abdul says the family cannot afford even the most basic school supplies for their son.
The Khaliqs’ nine-year-old daughter goes to school in a neighbouring village; the family pays a bus fare of ₼25 ($15) each month for this — equivalent to a quarter of their rent.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education told OC Media that in cases where schooling presents a large or insurmountable financial burden for a family, they may be eligible for funds to alleviate the situation.
When OC Media inquired why Abdul Khaliq did apply for his aid, he said that neither he nor his wife knew how, as no one had explained the process to them.
Abdul's wife, Matanat, says that she had applied to the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection for social benefits. ‘I was told that I need to get a residence certificate so that I could be granted an allowance.’
The ministry’s public relations department admitted that no financial assistance was provided to those without a legal address.
Elgun Safarov, the head of the Information and Analytical Research Department of the State Committee on Family, Women and Children, told OC Media that Afghan refugees should consider coming to them for help.
‘We can support them when they apply. At various times, we have been involved in educating people who have been excluded from education and providing school supplies to disadvantaged families’, he said. ‘The purpose of the state is to protect the rights and interests of children.’
However, no such aid has yet been delivered to the Afghan refugees that spoke to OC Media, since none have yet applied for it.
The root of the problem
Without being registered, refugees in Azerbaijan are not legally allowed to obtain employment or sign a contract. Without registration, they are ineligible for almost all government services. Without registration, they are not permitted to even purchase a phone sim card.
This is not because refugees are invisible to the government. The UNHCR provides information on the place of temporary residence of all refugees to the State Migration Service.
But this information is not used to organise a formal registration with the relevant authorities. Instead, it is used only by law enforcement agencies to monitor refugees.
Sanuber Heydarova is a social worker who was contracted by the UNHCR to work with Afghan migrants in 2017. She told OC Media that before providing social services, each family was assessed with a set of predetermined questions.
‘Families were unhappy with these questions’, she says. ‘People were not asked what they needed.’
She went on to explain that instead of asking the families about the specifics of their situation, they were instead asked very basic one-size-fits-all questions about how much food they consumed and their family finances.
In 2019, roughly 170 refugee families received a monthly subsistence allowance from the UNHCR.
But, according to Heydarova, this does not address the root of their problems. The main problem for such families, she told OC Media, is health, education, and employment. All of which are tied to registration and legal status.
The UNHCR is currently advocating for the Azerbaijani Government to provide a right to work for all refugees in the country at both the legislative and practical administrative level.