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Seeking acceptance: the Pakistanis building a new life in Azerbaijan

20 March 2018
Market on the Eighth (Bahruz Samadov /OC Media)

Having moved 2,000 kilometres to a new country, a small community of Pakistanis have built a new life for themselves in Azerbaijan. Even for those who have married locals, have Azerbaijani children, and say they are Azerbaijanis themselves, obtaining official recognition for this — citizenship — is not straightforward.

Reports have emerged in recent weeks of a number of South Asian people being deported from Azerbaijan for violating immigration laws. On 1 March alone, five Indian citizens, three Pakistanis, two citizens of Bangladesh and one of Afghanistan were reportedly detained.

Before that, up to 160 Indian citizens were detained in the country. In 2017, it was reported that Pakistani citizens are leading in terms of the number of non-documented migrants in Azerbaijan. Some of them work in the construction sector, but the more typical image is that of a Pakistani seller of household products.

‘Culturally and politically close’

Ahmad Talat (Bahruz Samadov /OC Media)

Ahmad Talat sells clothes at a large market known as the Market on the Eighth, working as a salesman at a store leased by another Pakistani. In almost perfect Azerbaijani, he says that he came to Baku 15 years ago from Karachi, during a period of instability and frequent terrorist attacks in that part of Pakistan.

‘At first, I had very different plans, I wanted to get an education here, get away from the instability in Karachi, and start a new life. There was no future there’, Ahmad tells OC Media.

‘Many people recommended Azerbaijan — as a country that was close in a cultural and political sense to Pakistan — to start a new life. In Baku, I worked as I could, and after a while I met a girl’, he says.

Ahmad remembers that at first, the couple had problems because of his Sunni faith. But these questions were resolved and they got married. His family from Pakistan also attended the wedding. Soon there were children — two daughters.

According to Ahmad, in the early years, when he was young and full of energy, he worked as hard as he could. But soon after the children were born, he decided he was already too old for higher education, but still had to work to feed the family. He learned Azerbaijani to a good level over the years.

‘There are no bribes’

Another Pakistani immigrant, Shahbaz Khan, sells household items. His counter stands in the open air. There are many sellers like him.A few days earlier, Shahbaz had complained of facing discrimination and ill-treatment by police, claiming they had demanded more money from him than from other outdoor sellers. Today, he no longer wants to talk about it.

Shahbaz says he was born in Lahore, to a poor Pakistani family. He initially came to Baku in 2007, first as a tourist with other Pakistanis. A year later, he was an immigrant, selling various Pakistani household products in Baku.

Now he is married to an Azerbaijani. They met by chance, through a mutual friend. They have three children.

While Shahbaz tells his story, the police behind us start addressing the sellers rudely, demanding they put away their goods. ‘Open-air stalls are removed, this is a big problem’, Shahbaz explains.

When asked about bribes, he exchanges glances with other Pakistanis and begins to consult them in Urdu. After a few seconds he says: ‘We have no problems with the police, there are no bribes. As it is with everyone, so it is with us’.

In the past, it was common to see Pakistanis in Baku, going door to door selling household goods. Shahbaz also used to do this. Now he does not know whether he will have to return to this method.

Elusive citizenship

Shakhbaz Khan (Bahruz Samadov /OC Media)

Both men say that their biggest problem is their lack of Azerbaijani citizenship. Ahmad has been living in Azerbaijan for 15 years, but still cannot get it. Shahbaz has dreamt of obtaining citizenship for almost ten years of living in Azerbaijan.

But instead of citizenship, they are given only temporary residence permits, for a certain period. The migration service requires immigrants to be registered in a certain flat. To obtain such registration, Ahmad negotiates with the apartment owner, who agrees to register him in his apartment for a year, for a fee.

This entails additional expenses: every year ₼120 ($70) goes to the migration service, ₼80 ($47) on a health certificate, and ₼50 ($29) for notary services. This total of ₼250 ($147) means a lot for a poor family.

According to Ahmad, the migration services have told him that first he must receive registration for five years, then for another five years, ‘and then, maybe, they will be given citizenship’. Registration for five years costs ₼350 ($207), which must be paid up front. He does not have such money, so he applies for registration just a year at time. Ahmad says that there are about 300 people in Baku like him.

Obtaining Azerbaijani citizenship is not just a practical matter for Ahmad. He says he considers himself to be Azerbaijani, and wants this confirmed at an official level.

‘Sometimes some not so good people tell me I'm not from here, and ask me what am I doing here? At such times, I want to show them citizenship and say I have been accepted here as a local’, he says.

Ahmad fears that such questions will also be directed to his son at school. ‘I want my son to confidently say that not only he, but also his father has an Azerbaijani passport’, Ahmad says.

When I ask about the deported Pakistanis and Indians, Shahbaz replies that he knew several Pakistanis who were deported. He says they were illiterate and believed what the scammers told them: ‘They came as tourists, and then they worked. They did not even suspect it was illegal to work on a tourist visa’.

No child support

Ahmad and Shahbaz’s second complaint concerns government child support for their children. This is paid only to families where one parent is employed in an officially registered position. Both men’s wives do not work, as they take care of the children at home, and Ahmad and Shahbaz’s jobs are not officially registered.

‘No one will help us with this’, Ahmad says. ‘This year my daughter will go to school, and sometimes I'm ashamed as a father that we don’t have enough money’.

Shahbaz and his wife have three children. ‘I'm a modern person, I don’t mind my wife working, but there is no work’. Their oldest child is already seven years old, but they have not received any social support, even though all the children are Azerbaijani citizens.

Child support is provided to families with children under the age of eight, where  one parent has an official job and pays tax. After a child reaches eight, both parents must work in order to keep getting child support. Payments vary depending on the income of the family, reaching up to ₼152 ($90) a month.

Another Pakistani in the store overhears our conversation about child support. He is a refugee and is being helped by the local UN office for refugees. It was earlier reported that there are fewer than thirty refugees in Azerbaijan.

‘Well, what about him? He is under the protection of the UN. He doesn’t need anything’, Ahmad remarks.

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