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Refugees have been living in the dormitory of a boarding school for deaf and mute children in Baku since 1993. They were forced to leave their homes back then as a result of the conflict in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. An older woman, who calls herself Zarifa, says that the building is barely suitable for living.
"The plumbing is out of order; pipes are leaking almost everywhere. So the floor in the kitchen stays wet all the time,” Zarifa says. “We have no gas. We cook and heat the place with electricity. Since they have installed electricity meters, we are getting huge bills."
Another elderly woman who lives in the dormitory also complains about high electricity costs. "I live alone. My pension is 170 manat ($101),” she says. “I get another 20 manat as food allowance. In January, after they canceled electricity benefits for internally displaced people, I got an electricity bill of 109 manat. How can I pay it? No one cares about us."
In Baku, internally displaced people (IDP) have been asking the authorities to solve housing problems for years. Officials have agreed that the 340,000 internally displaced people need better living conditions. They have promised once again to speed up the resettlement process, but it has been painfully slow.
For nearly 30 years, the landlocked, mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh has been frozen in an unresolved dispute between Azerbaijan, in which it lies, and its ethnic Armenian majority, backed by neighboring Armenia. Conflict in the region erupted just before the demise of the Soviet Union in 1988. Officially, Nagorno-Karabakh remains a part of Azerbaijan within its internationally recognized borders, and Baku opposes any international recognition for the territory. Armenia has also not recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state, with the president saying in the past that such a move would derail the ongoing international negotiations about the future of the area.
The refugees living in the school dormitory complain about inconveniences and financial difficulties. At least 17-18 families live on each floor of the four-story building located on Sharifli Street in the Nasimi neighborhood of Baku.
Afiga Bairamova says that she shares a 16-square-meter (172-square-foot) room with her son, daughter-in-law, and their three children. "A few years ago we renovated our room. But because the plumbing and the sewage in the building are decrepit, everything is damp. All the wallpaper peels off from the dampness. Wallpaper aside, the children are constantly sick because of the high humidity. We have a tiny window, and this place practically does not get any sunlight," Bairamova says.
Bairamova’s financial situation is dire. "I sweep streets and get 180 manat. My son is a manual worker who earns two-three manat a day. My daughter-in-law looks after three children and cannot work. It is hard to find employment anyway, even for the most difficult jobs," she says.
An elderly man named Gasim is an IDP from the Fuzuli region, which is located in southern Azerbaijan, and remains partly under the control of the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities. He also complains of the conditions of the dormitory.
"Look around – the plaster is falling off. The pipes regularly burst, young residents patch them with whatever they have at hand,” he says. “Each floor has just one kitchen and no ventilation system. Due to the lack of space, our women often cook in their rooms on electric stoves, and the steam from the food and kettles increases the dampness. They should either renovate this dormitory or house us in the newly constructed buildings for internally displaced people," Gasim says.
A spouse of another refugee also points to the lack of space and other inconveniences. "Our family of six shares one room. We have a shared toilet with other neighbors – and no heating. In winter, the children always get sick. We are human; we want to live and rest like humans. They could at least offer us reasonable temporary housing until our lands and houses are finally free and we can go home," the woman says.
Her husband, Tarlan Alyshov, says that the IDPs have repeatedly asked the State Committee for Refugees and the officials of the district administration to solve their problems – all in vain.
"The government has not even responded to our complaints. Local authorities shift the responsibility to the State Committee for Refugees. And those who work there say they have no money for repairs. They ask us to wait for our turn to receive new housing," Alyshov says.
At the same time, he mentioned that the refugees had not appealed to the commissioner for human rights in Azerbaijan. "To be honest, we have lost hope that someone could help us. It makes no sense to appeal there," Alyshov says.
"No one is interested in us. Before local elections, candidates come to our dormitory. They promise a lot and then forget about us. I don’t even know who our current parliamentary representative is," adds one of the residents, another refugee from Nagorno-Karabakh.
Official Statistics: 35,000 People Need Urgent Relocation
The 2017 budget has no funds earmarked for the relocation of residents living in the dormitory on Sharifli Street, a spokesman for the State Committee for Refugees said.
But he added that all refugees who live in dormitories, hospitals, and kindergartens would be gradually offered temporary housing in newly constructed, apartment buildings or one-story houses. At the same time, the committee spokesman said that the resettlement of these refugees should be accelerated thanks to Mehriban Aliyeva, the country’s first lady and recently appointed vice president of Azerbaijan. She raised this issue at a meeting with officials on 9 March that focused on the problem of IDPs who temporarily live in dormitories in Baku and Sumgait, Azerbaijan’s third-largest city, located near the Caspian Sea.
According to officials, 340,000 refugees need improved housing. In Baku alone, 41,000 families live in urban areas, out of which 14,000 live in dormitories; 5,000 in public buildings; 4,000 in hospitals, boarding houses, and tourist camps; 4,000 in unfinished buildings; and 2,000 in educational institutions and kindergartens. At least 117 of these buildings are not suitable for living, as they are in deplorable condition and long past their lifespan. And yet, 35,000 people still live there.
At the meeting with Aliyeva, the head of the State Committee for Refugees and IDPs, Ali Hasanov, said that the building of a settlement for 1,170 families in the Tartar region (located in the south and partly controlled by Nagorno-Karabakh) was under way. He also said that financial problems linked to the construction of four buildings on vacant land in Baku and in the surrounding areas, which are meant to house 260 families, had been solved. Additional land has been allocated for the construction of new residential complexes for 800 families in Baku and its surroundings, including near the Kurdakhani village in the Sabunchi region; within the Pirallakhinsky district for 330 families; and in Sumgait for 1,000 of 2,900 relocated families, the AZERTAC state news agency reports.
As for the huge electricity bills, a representative of the State Committee on Refugees pointed out that state benefits entitling refugees to free electricity had been reinstalled by presidential decree on 14 February. The electricity distribution company Azerigiq clarified, however, that the cabinet had set limits for free electricity consumption by refugees. For example, refugees who live in places without gas – in dormitories, hospitals, kindergartens, and educational institutions – are exempt from paying electricity bills if their consumption is less than 300 kilowatt-hour (KW-h) per person. Everything above that limit should be paid according to tariffs set by the Tariff Council, an Azerigiq representative said.
As for the refugees' complaints about huge electricity bills, a representative of the energy company said that in February "the refugees had received bills for the previous month" [before the presidential decree].
Sakhavat Aliyev is a displaced person from the Jabrayil region, which is located in the south, most of it under Nagorno Karabakh’s control). He lives in the dormitory of the Azerbaijan Technical University and said he was satisfied with the reinstalled benefits.
"Honestly, when the benefits were abolished we were desperate. We didn’t have gas or central heating. In January, we got a bill for 72 manat for using 760 KW-h, which is almost 20 percent of our family budget. But then they told us that the benefits had been reinstalled, and we don’t have to pay the bill. It seems that many are confused by this new system and were frightened by the January bills," Aliyev says.
Falling Oil Prices Affect Refugees
Togrul Juvarli, a business analyst from the Turan news agency, said that, in general, Azerbaijan has managed to ease social tensions caused by the plight of these refugees.
"Azerbaijan faced a humanitarian disaster in the early 1990s with the arrival of 1 million refugees from Armenia, Meskhetian Turks from Central Asia [where they had been deported during the Soviet Union], and internally displaced people from Karabakh,” he said. “In the mid-1990s, we had tent cities in the lowland regions of the country. The government used the [newly independent country’s] first oil revenues to solve the refugees' housing problem. By the mid-2000s, all tent camps were gone."
The large-scale construction of housing for settlers "has somewhat slowed down due to the fall in oil prices," Juvarli said. "But still, it should remain a priority for the state. It seems the government understands it, too. Internally displaced people are the most vulnerable social group, so they are prone to unrest."
In his opinion, the state should tackle refugee employment, too. "The situation is easier for those who get houses in new settlements in rural areas. They lease plots of land and can use them to start a farm. But it is much more challenging in cities. During all those years in dormitories, refugees managed to establish small businesses. They opened small shops, hairdressing salons, or small catering facilities. As they move to new buildings in less populated or empty areas in the vicinity of the major cities, it is hard to establish businesses there. That’s why it is important to offer jobs and spur the growth of businesses, while developing these new housing areas," Juvarli says.
Gozel Bayramli, the deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan party, said that the measures to solve refugees' housing problems are not sufficient. "If the government didn’t throw billions of dollars in the air to sponsor useless events like the European Olympic Games or a Formula 1 race and if they didn’t invite foreign coaches and athletes or organize international humanitarian forums, they would have enough funds not only to provide housing for all refugees but for all those in need of housing," Bayramli says.
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