Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 July 2014, 12:39 GMT

Azerbaijanis Flock to Iran for Food, Medicines

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Author Samira Ahmedbeyli
Publication Date 28 May 2012
Citation / Document Symbol CRS Issue 643
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Azerbaijanis Flock to Iran for Food, Medicines, 28 May 2012, CRS Issue 643, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fc5f94a2.html [accessed 22 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

People from southern Azerbaijan make regular trips to neighbouring Iran to buy food and access healthcare. Despite the crowds and obstructive officials at the border crossing, they say it is still worth the effort for the money they save.

For some commentators, the cross-border trade is also a cause for alarm, where some see it as another avenue through which Tehran can project its influence. Despite cultural similarities between the two nations, post-Soviet Azerbaijan and Islamic Iran maintain an uneasy coexistence.

"There are many unemployed people like me in Astara, and most of the men in work have insecure temporary jobs and earn a maximum of 200 manats [250 US dollars] a month," Akif Huseynov, from the border town of Astara, said. "How can you feed a family on that amount? We have to go to Iran, where everything is half the price it is here."

The frontier separates Astara from its Iranian namesake, and long queues form at customs as people from other parts of southern Azerbaijan like Lenkoran and Lerik join the locals on their shopping forays.

Huseynov said Iranian officials were helpful and did not stop people going home with bagloads of food they had bought – in contrast to their Azerbaijani counterparts.

"Each time we go, our customs officers take half our food away from us and discard it. Supposedly you're not allowed to bring in more than ten kilograms of foodstuffs, and they say you have to pay one or two manats for every extra kilogram. That makes the cost the same as it is in Astara, and you'd have to ask why you even went to Iran," he said.

Before walking across to the Iranian side, would-be visitors have to wait inside one of a pair of caged enclosures, which lead to customs in Astara.

When an IWPR reporter visited, a crowd of Azerbaijani nationals were kept waiting in one of these for three hours. The other enclosure, designated for foreign citizens, was faster, though it still took an hour. A cleaner pointed the journalist to this faster route, which she said she could enter in return for a "small fee".

"You can see this horror show every day from early in the morning until 12 or one o'clock," said Maqsud, a man from Yardimli in southern Azerbaijan. "The majority of these people are lie me, going to Iran for food. First you have to wait two or three hours just to get inside the cage, then you have to stand inside it for about the same amount of time. It's closed off on all sides and people often get ill there. And it takes an hour for the border guards to open the door while you're shouting at them."

Despite this treatment, Maqsud said he went to Iran twice a month.

"I am a teacher on 240 manats [a month]. If I don't go to Iran to get food, my family will starve," he said. "Of course you can shell out ten or 15 manats and go via the left-hand cage which is meant for foreigners. People are allowed through quicker and you don't have to wait nearly as long. But I can buy a lot of food in Iran for that money, so it's a shame to give it to the border guards."

Asen Hashimli, a member of the opposition Musavat party who lives in Iran, said the situation was an indictment of conditions in Azerbaijan.

"All these people are going to Iran for cheap food, manufactured goods and medicines. And it isn't the first year this has been happening," he said. "Medicines in Iran are low in price and high in quality. For poor Azerbaijanis, Iran has become the only hope of feeding their families and getting treatment. And sadly, Azerbaijani customs exploit them."

Safura Qadimova is among those who have benefited from Iran's healthcare system.

"I've been married eight years, but we didn't have children. I underwent endless tests and treatment, amounting to over 5,000 manats," she said. "In the end, my friends advised me to go to Iran. I spent 400 dollars there and it only took a month – after the first course of treatment, I got pregnant immediately."

Natig Ibadov, Astara's deputy mayor with special responsibility for healthcare, acknowledged that local residents often went to Iran for treatment, but he insisted the town's new hospital would improve matters.

"It's got everything. The president set aside another two million manats to build a second wing. Now we'll be able to treat our own patients and there will be no need to go to Iran," Ibadov said.

The hospital is certainly large and looks well-equipped. But when this IWPR contributor visited it, there was not a single patient in sight, just doctors and nurses sitting drinking tea.

Hashimli said the hospital would do little to stem the flow of people heading for Iran.

"If we don't have decent doctors, and the ones we do have think only about getting money from their patients, then who's going to go there?" he asked. "Everyone is still going to Iran."

Hashimli said the government needed to pay more attention to southern parts of Azerbaijan because of their strategically sensitive location.

"It's no secret that Iran wields influence in southern areas of Azerbaijan. And now it's expanding its influence because of the local population's needs," he said. "Our government has to take this seriously. It must provide people with work and create the conditions for them to live decent lives, to study and to access medical treatment, so that citizens of Azerbaijan aren't reliant on Iran."

Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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