“Perhaps there are altogether four or five thousand activists in Azerbaijan. Most asylum seekers say they come to Germany because of their political activities. Does that mean there are no political activists in Azerbaijan at all? They all came here?” -- Gurban Alekperov, a German citizen who moved to Berlin about 20 years ago and has a small translation agency.
Germany has been the most welcoming European Union country for people from the Middle East and Africa who often face danger and death. Now Germany has become a destination for thousands of Azerbaijanis who decided to flee -- often for economic reasons.
According to the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, 4,750 Azerbaijani citizens applied for asylum in Germany in 2016, more than three times as many as in 2015. Fewer than 10 percent (459) were approved. This figure includes political refugees and "protection status holders" who are given residential status but must reapply every year. Now that German chancellor Angela Markel has agreed to cap the number of refugees accepted from all countries at 200,000 per year, it will only become harder for Azerbaijanis to win asylum.
I. Trying to Get In
There is reason to doubt many who claim political persecution. There are social media discussions on the sale of false documents, including fake party membership cards and police arrest records, which are needed to obtain political asylum in Germany.
Some people were using two names. “The first one is the real name, the second is for the asylum. When they used a fake name, the German government sent the information request to Azerbaijan and got nothing about the person,” says Habib Abdullayev, who lives in Berlin and works as social media manager for Berlin-based Meydan TV online channel. “The person was classified as a person without a homeland, and the German government gave asylum.” This method no longer works because all Schengen visa country embassies require fingerprints.
Abdullayev, 33, has been in Berlin since 2002. He says he traveled through Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland to get to Germany.
These days, he claims there are some people who deliberately argue with Azerbaijan police at rallies in order to get good photos. Then some tabloid newspapers publish these photos, and the person gets “proof” to show during an interview in Europe that he/she was prosecuted in Azerbaijan because of political views or activities. Another person claims there are some photographers who get paid to take these photos.
"Some asylum seekers do it to give a better life to their children," Abdullayev said. "Some come because of health problems. One of the first documents an asylum seeker gets is health insurance, and before that they can get free blood analysis, X-rays and preventative medicine. If they discover some serious illness, that person will go undergo surgery or will get treatment immediately -- for free.”
Alovsat Aliyev, 56, moved to Germany in 2014. He is the former head of the Azerbaijan Migration Centre based in Baku. His name was mentioned in a criminal case against a group who helped the wife and children of Emin Shekinksi, former chief of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, to leave Azerbaijan with illegal documents. Twelve other people have been charged with theft, forgery or falsification of documents, and illegal crossing of the border. They confessed to the forgeries, but deny any thefts.
“People know that I worked as a head of the Immigration Centre for years and I have huge experience," Aliyev said. "I just give them advice, and always strongly recommend they not use fake documents,” he told Meydan TV in his interview in 2016. Aliyev said he would someday write a report on what he called "organized crime groups" which offer these documents.
“I heard from dozens of people that Alovsat Aliyev and people close to him are involved in the immigration business,” says Meydan TV reporter Shirin Abbasov. “To help someone with these issues is okay, but to earn money from it is terrible!"
Most people who seek asylum enter Europe as tourists. It is much easier to get a tourist visa if a person had a Schengen visa before, which leads people to the Schengen visa black market. One of them was journalist Roya Rafili.
“You should have received at least two Schengen visas in order to be sure to get the next one, but I had never had one,” Rafili said. “I tried to get one by myself but couldn’t, and started searching for a person in the black market who could help me. I found a man, he found another man, and that man found the broker. I was asked from which embassy I wanted to get the visa – Hungarian, Latvian or Italian. I chose the Hungarian Embassy in Baku.”
The Hungarian Embassy became popular because of the Dublin regulation . It states that a person can apply for refugee status in only one European Union country -- usually the first one a person enters. If a person tries to apply in a different country, he/she will be returned to that first country they entered.
In 2015, Hungary changed its laws so it would not process refugees who enter their country first. As a result, Azerbaijani asylum seekers on tourist visas often traveled first to Hungary. By doing that, if they tried later to get asylum in Germany, they knew they would not be shipped back to Hungary.
But now the Hungarian Embassy in Baku turns down many visa applicants, saying they believe the person may not come back to Azerbaijan due to the socio-economic conditions in the country.
The cost to get a visa often depends on if the person arranging it knows you or someone close to you. Different interviewees spoke of prices between $900 to $3,000.
Baku-based journalist Sakhavat Mammadov investigated. "One guy told me his company could help with visa issues. All I had to bring was my passport, a document proving I had a job, and ownership documents if I had a house or a car.
The company has the ironic name "No Border". It's located on 30 Bulbul Avenue in Baku. It is run by Ramin Hajili, 34, the current president of European Movement Azerbaijan, a pro-European organization. He's a former deputy of international relations for the opposition Umid (Hope) party.
A person answering Mammadov's questions online and on the phone said the company had about 20 employees. The person said the company gets more than 100 visas a month for asylum seekers pretending to be tourists, and that the visas come from the Hungary, France, Switzerland, Latvia and other embassies.
Mammadov was told the service costs $500, but because his boss was a friend of Hajili's, there might be a discount. The price was even lower if Mammadov could produce some documents on his own.
It was suggested he go to the French embassy and apply as a tourist. Then he should go to Germany, give himself up to police, and say that he was seeking asylum due to his journalism profession. He was told Hajili's brother lives in Germany and could help him.
On October 12, Hajili received a two-year suspended sentence for falsifying work and salary documents for people who applied for US visas through his company. Hajili was alleged to have submitted false documents to the US consulate in Baku. Four other people were sentenced to two years of hard labor.
II. Life in a Camp
One refugee camp is located in Nuremberg, about 10 kilometers from the famous Nazi Party Rally Grounds used in 1933-1938. Some Germans call Nuremberg “the most German of German cities.”
“I heard two reasons why Germans built a refugee camp here," says Roya Rafili, an Azerbaijan journalist for Yeni Musuvat newspaper and then Kanal 13 internet TV. "The first is to help Germans adapt to immigrants, and the second as a challenge to immigrants who come here. Sometimes people cannot endure living here and they return to their homelands.
“I came here because of the repressions in Azerbaijan. It was impossible to even write a critical post on Facebook. This is the reality. A lot of my colleagues have travel bans. I didn’t worry much about arrest, because they very seldom arrest women. But I knew I could get the travel ban, or maybe lose my job.
"Before coming here I talked to my friends. I originally planned to come in July, so one of my sons could finish his school year," said the divorced mother of two. "But in the end I left Azerbaijan with my sons on February 27, and on March 1 we turned ourselves in here. Two months later, the Kanal 13 editor-in-chief was arrested. A criminal case was launched against Kanal 13 and it closed.”
Rafili says she is satisfied with living conditions in the camp. “We get lunch for free. Breakfast and dinner we buy with the monthly allowance they give us.” She gets 150 euros and her sons 110 euros apiece. “This money is very good if you live in Azerbaijan, but here life is very expensive.”
“I think it is clear that 80-90% of Azerbaijanis come here because of financial problems in Azerbaijan," says Anar Rzayev, a blogger who entered Germany in February of 2017 for a training and didn't go back. He says people who use forged documents trying to prove they are politically persecuted are selected instead of real political dissidents.
“I felt threatened in Azerbaijan and that's why I decided not to return. I started my blogging in 2015. After several critical posts, I was called into the Khatai police station in Baku. They threatened me a little, but I never talked or wrote about it. I was a little bit embarrassed to kind of advertise it. But I didn't want to go to jail, and I was afraid for my family members. I think to be free and continue to write blogposts from some distance away is better than to sit in jail,” says Rzayev, now a temporary resident of the Nuremberg camp.
“Our colleagues live in Germany, which is good for us, because we don’t feel that we are alone,” says one Azerbaijani journalist who wishes to be anonymous because of security issues.
He says there are just two Azerbaijani families in his camp in Ratingen, near Dusseldorf. “There were only three Azerbaijani families in the previous camp. They came from the regions, and their main reasons were financial problems. In general, I don’t say why I came. Even the aid organizations involved in our cases and the social workers in the camps warn us not to tell anyone. There may be some people who work for the Azerbaijani government.
“At first I was afraid, because I heard a lot of things about the camps. But everything is much better than expected. Certain things makes you sad. Giving up all your documents, some of the camp rules, you feel like your freedom is limited."
The residents of the Ratingen camp are provided with food three times a day. Adults get 30 euros a week and children get 20 euros.
Some are dissatisfied: “I feel like I’m in a concentration camp,” says a man over age 60 who wanted to be anonymous, and would not say why he left Azerbaijan. “No, do not come here. It is very hard to live here. I notice that over time we are becoming as cold-hearted as the Germans and the Europeans."
“Call your article: 'Runaway Refugees from the Nefarious Activities of Nefarious People', says Aysel Aghayeva as she talked through a fence. Her husband was beaten during a protest against a 2015 constitutional referendum that further restricted human rights. She emphasized they have evidence proving her husband attended the protest: “He was beaten so badly, we just ran away from the country. We have all the required papers, YouTube videos and photos."
They traveled through several countries before arriving in Germany. "If we return, I am 100 percent sure that right in the airport they will push us into a car and arrest us.
Aghayeva gave very confusing answers about her husband’s activism in Azerbaijan. After some thought, she said she guesses her husband is a member of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party.
“I was a literature teacher," said Aghayeva, who used to live in Salyan and has been in the camp for six months. "We walked around with our noses in the air. We were very picky in terms of food and other things. But here, every single day we are waiting in line for our daily ration of macaroni. It is very hard; you feel like you are in a concentration camp.”
You meet all kinds of people at a camp, even a guy in his 20s with a swastika tattoo on his ankle. “Well, what can I say, in the near future I’ll be going back to Azerbaijan,” he admits while sadly lightening a cigarette. Ultimately he was deported, and he never faced the potential problem of living in Nuremberg with a Nazi tattoo.
III. Life in Germany
Shirin Abbasov is a reporter for Meydan TV. He won asylum after proving political pressure in Azerbaijan. He says he met many pseudo-political activists when he was in the Zirndorf and Fürth camps in northern Bavaria.
“Some of them didn’t know much about the political situation or political process in Azerbaijan, but they still tried to use political reasons to relocate," Abbasov said.
"I understand that because of the economy it is very hard to live there now. If they get refugee status here, they should do something for their country. But they do nothing for Azerbaijani society. They know that if they give the real reason – financial – for their relocation, they will get deported.
"There are even people that really from the bottom of their hearts love the Azerbaijani regime. They may even fight with you if you criticize the regime.”
Gurban Alakbarov, 41, has lived in Germany about 20 years and works as a translator. He refuses to translate fake documents.
“I don’t care if a person comes here for political or non-political reasons. When customers call me and ask about translation, I ask what kind of documents they have," he said. "I act according to my own principles. If there are birth or marriage certificates, I take them. If there are arrest or court decision papers, I try not to translate fake ones.”
“We know that in order to get status here a person should have political reasons, not financial,” says Yafez Hasanov, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Azerbaijani Service journalist who left the country after a criminal case was launched against him when the station was shut down in 2014. He received political asylum in 2016.
“There are some businessmen that take advantage of the situation," he said. "There is a partnership among immigrant businessmen in Europe and businessmen back in Azerbaijan. They forge documents. The main business is finding 'victims'."
Hasanov says their first step is getting Schengen visas in Baku, usually from Eastern European countries. When the victims reach Europe, businessmen there give them fake documents to show a person has political reasons for asylum.
"Usually they take 70-80% of the money beforehand and transfer it to their partners’ bank accounts in Europe. It is hard to catch them. The German authorities understand that this huge human flow from Azerbaijan can’t be only because of political activities.
"That’s why the authorities are starting to make decisions on cases faster and send people back to Azerbaijan. They don't believe that 2,000-3,000 people are activists. I have friends who are the real activists, but they were sent back.”
According to Hasanov, the victims are often promised they will get nice apartments and cars when they get asylum, but in reality they don’t get anything. “People sell everything, including the properties they have in Azerbaijan," he said. "And when people get refused by Germany authorities, they can’t file a suit against anyone."
The journalist Rafili has been in Nuremberg camp for three months. She has been interviewed but has been told nothing about her status. Sometimes people are moved to new camps on short notice.
"I don’t know what will happen.”
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