Jennifer Wistrand, a Woodrow Wilson Institute research scholar, spoke about economic migrants and displaced people in Azerbaijan during a presentation sponsored by the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies Tuesday.
“Within a generation of the Soviet Union collapsing, when the Soviet system attempted to give everyone a house and a job, you now have places like Azerbaijan,” Wistrand said. “You’ve got a very large, either voluntarily or involuntarily, dislocated population and a number of people whose economic or educational opportunities are greatly reduced from what they would have been a generation ago.”
Wistrand lived in Azerbaijan for 22 months while researching for her anthropology dissertation for the Washington University in St. Louis. She focused on how citizens of the former USSR make annual journeys to Russia for work, with some trips lasting as long as six to eight months.
“As many as 2 million citizens — 25 percent of the population … [and] as many 25 percent of the men under the age of 25 — live and work in Russia,” Wistrand said.
Most of these laborers are unskilled, male and do not have postsecondary education, Wistrand added. The men often travel to Russia and work in agricultural positions for many months while their families remain in Azerbaijan.
Wistrand’s research also focused on Azerbaijanis who were displaced due to the nation’s war with Karabakh from 1988 to 1994. Living in dormitories with other internally displaced persons, the migrants struggled to find work in Baku, the capital, and outside their former rural homes. Even after the government built schools for the displaced persons’ children, the students and their families remained in the “insulated and isolated communities” of the dormitories.
“You would assume that the numbers would have gone down as that [group] of students went through school,” Wistrand said. “Instead … the numbers have increased because people are still staying in the community.”
As subsequent generations have children, the living arrangements only become more cramped. This effect, along with strained economic times in Baku for IDPs, has created an institutionalized group of people in need.
“For a lot of the kids born into this IDP status, they can look around and see, in contrast to a lot of the rural kids, the parents or grandparents who had university degrees, were teachers, were economists in their area but since moving to Baku, were unable to find work and were unemployed with these degrees,” Wistrand said. “What many of the IDP kids do is join the rural and service markets, finding money through unskilled jobs.”