Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijanis Flock to Turkish Town

Turkish border city’s population booms as Azerbaijanis come in search of work.
A small Turkish border city has rocketed in size because of an influx of thousands of people from the nearby Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, who are seeking a route out of poverty.

Igdir is a small provincial town on Turkey’s eastern border, next door to the Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan, the Azerbaijani region separated from the rest of the country by Armenian territory. A majority of Igdir’s 60,000 inhabitants are now Azerbaijani.

The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh left Nakhichevan cut off from the rest of the country and in a deep economic crisis.

The town’s mayor, Nurettin Aras, said Igdir used to be more like a village until the Nineties, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Azerbaijan became an independent state, but started booming after the border with Nakhichevan opened.

Nakhichevan’s former deputy prime minister Asif Kalantarli said that during the Karabakh war, Baku would send fuel to the autonomous region via Iran, but most of it ended up being sold in Igdir.

“As petrol costs more in Turkey than in Azerbaijan, Igdir became a key fuel market,” said Kalantarli. “People from nearby Turkish provinces such as Kars, Van and Erzurum came to Igdir to buy petrol. Thanks to this trade, Igdir turned from a small village into a medium-sized town.”

The quickest way to reach Igdir is to drive there from Nakhichevan’s airport. A taxi will take you all the way for 20 manats, 24 US dollars. The driver who took this IWPR contributor to Igdir even offered to find a job for me there.

Most of the Nakhichevanis in Igdir do work that amounts to little more than bonded labour. There are 100 families from the village of Yayji alone, all of them working on the land around Igdir.

Father of three Hassan Guliev said, “For ten years now, I’ve come to Igdir to be a ‘hambal’. That’s what they call us – hambals or farmhands. Unlike others, I’m not ashamed of it. There isn’t even this kind of work in Nakhichevan, and I have a family to support.”

Guliev said guest workers like him had no rights in Turkey.

“We’ve been beaten by locals and policemen so many times,” he said. “Many times we’ve been mugged in dark alleyways and robbed of our money. We can’t even seek anyone’s for help to defend our rights. Everywhere we’re told, ‘You came to Turkey as tourists and have no right to work here.’

“Worst of all, the Nakhichevan authorities never come to our defence. Nuru Mamedov, the representative responsible for Igdir at the Azerbaijani consulate in Kars, does not even bother to listen to our concerns.”

Asked to comment, Mamedov told IWPR he felt sorry for Azerbaijani citizens who were in a lamentable situation in Igdir, but could offer them no help.

“Most of our nationals are living unregistered in Turkey and working illegally,” he said. “That is why we cannot interfere when the police deport them. I think the issue should be solved at state level. It would be good if Azerbaijan and Turkey signed an agreement abolishing visa requirements and simplifying the employment regulations for our citizens in Turkey - at least for people living in areas near the border.”

Some Nakhichevanis are now deciding to head home of their own accord.

Sakit came to Igdir together with his wife and two children. “I work as a ‘hambal’, my wife is a cleaner in a hotel, my elder son works as a shepherd in the village of Tuzluca near Igdir, while my younger son shines shoes in the Heidar Aliev Park in the centre of the town. We all work, but the money we make is still not enough to meet all our needs,” he said. “We have decided to save up some money to buy some sheep and return to our village. After all, it’s better to be at home among your own people.”

In the meantime, many Igdir locals blame the incomers for corrupting their town.

Mucahit Aydin, who heads the Igdir branch of the right-wing National Movement Party, says the town is now teeming with Azerbaijani prostitutes.

“In a town with a population of 60,000, there are over 40 hotels and all of them have been operating as brothels,” he said. “Igdir prostitutes earn an average of 250 or 300 [US] dollars a day. Their clients come from as far away as Kars, Agri and Erzurum.”

“No one ever stays in some of the hotels, people go there only for the prostitutes,” said Gurban Husseinov, a Nakhichevani who rents a small jewellery shop in Igdir. “The local government has turned a blind eye to all of this. Igdir is poor compared with other Turkish towns. These hotels earn pretty good incomes from their brothels and pay high taxes. That is why the authorities say nothing.”

Yusuf, who works as an administrator at the Yeni Yildiz Hotel, admitted that prostitution was going on. “These women who occupy room in our hotels pay several months up front,” he said. “If they are such profitable clients, why should I turn them out? It’s not my business to check the identity of men visiting them. They say they are relatives. What can I do about it?”

“The municipal police have raided the hotels now and then,” said police officer Kemal Givarik. “But mostly these women’s documents are completely in order. That is why we cannot deport them. We deport only those who don’t have an official right to be in Turkey.”

As we were crossing the border to Igdir, many women were waiting at the checkpoint having their passports checked. It transpired that the Turkish government had ordered that women should only be allowed to cross from Nakhichevan to Igdir if they were accompanied by a relative aged at least 14. An exception is made only for widows, who must produce a certificate confirming the death of their husbands.

Nakhichevani human rights activist Mahomed Aliev said that even prostitutes who were deported from Turkey could slip back across the frontier by paying a bribes between 500 and 700 dollars.

“The luckiest ones get married to elderly Turks and become Turkish citizens,” he added.

The Nakhichevan-Turkey border is a lively place. Smugglers have found ever more inventive ways of getting around the Turkish ban on carrying more than two cartons of cigarettes into the country. They distribute two cartons to each passenger on the bus they are travelling on. Even this IWPR contributer gave in and collaborated in this illicit action. Big consignments of meat are parcelled up and transported in the same way.

As well as Turks and Azerbaijanis, Igdir’s diverse population includes Kurds and Armenians. Because of the security problems posed by the PKK, the militant Kurdish rebel group which is active here, everything stops in the evenings, in contrast to the town’s busy life during the daytime.

After eight in the evening, all the shops, markets, cafes and restaurants shut down, everyone goes home, and the streets are left to the Turkish police and army in their armoured personnel carriers.