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Afghan Refugees Face Uncertainty in Central Asia

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Afghan Refugees Face Uncertainty in Central Asia

In recent days, Tajikistan has been criticized by the U.N. Refugee Agency for deporting Afghan refugees.

Afghan Refugees Face Uncertainty in Central Asia
Credit: Depositphotos

Since the collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government and the rise to power of the Taliban, Afghan refugees in neighboring Central Asian states have lived in limbo. Central Asian states, Umida Hashimova wrote last November, “remain closed to refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan and uninterested in changing their restrictive policies.” That remains true, as evidenced by recent reports of Tajikistan expelling Afghan refugees.

On August 25, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it had “grave concerns over the continued detention and deportations of Afghan refugees in Tajikistan.” UNHCR specifically referenced an incident involving the forced return of five Afghans (including a woman and her three children) through the Panji Poyon border checkpoint “despite UNHCR’s interventions to halt the deportations.”

UNHCR’s Director of International Protection Elizabeth Tan said: “We have continuously urged the authorities in Tajikistan to allow access to territory for those fleeing conflict and persecution in Afghanistan and halt any further deportations.” Tan said that UNHCR had asked the Tajik authorities to “stop detaining and deporting refugees, an action that clearly puts lives at risk.”

Following the UNHCR complaint, RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, also known as Radio Ozodi, reported on additional deportations that took place in late August and early September. Radio Ozodi reported that Afghan refugees in Tajikistan were reluctant to show their faces or share their fears: “On August 30… not a single Afghan refugee agreed to speak openly on camera about the problem of deportation from Tajikistan.”

TOLO News contacted an Afghan refugee who fled to Tajikistan four years ago who said her husband had recently been detained and deported. “The Tajiks arrested my husband downstairs. Some said, the security forces took him in custody. Then I found out that they sent my husband to the border along Kunduz province, without any inquiry,” she said. 

Another Afghan refugee in Tajikistan told TOLO News, “The situation of the Afghan refugees has recently deteriorated. We are frightened.”

One source suggested to Radio Ozodi that more than 100 Afghans had been returned across the border in recent days. Eurasianet cited a source as saying the number stood around 200 expelled in the last three weeks. Exact numbers are impossible to verify.

UNHCR stressed that that forced return of refugees “is against the law and runs contrary to the principle of non-refoulement, a cornerstone of international refugee law.” The sentiment was echoed by none other than the Taliban-run Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. Spokesman Abdul Mutalib Haqqani, according to TOLO News, reportedly said, “This action of Tajikistan is in contrast with the international law.”

Tajikistan acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol in 1993 but has been criticized for its treatment of refugees. In the UNHCR’s submission for Tajikistan 2021 Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the agency noted that Tajikistan hosts Central Asia’s largest number of refugees, at that juncture (April 2021) numbering just under 6,000 — mostly ethnic Tajik refugees from Afghanistan. However, UNHRC noted that “[t]he registration [of refugees and asylum seekers] is carried out by the Government, and the age and gender-disaggregated data is unavailable and not shared with UNHCR.”

The number of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers grew in August 2021, with the Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan — now a bastion of anti-Taliban exiles — saying in early 2022 that there were 10,000 Afghan refugees in the country.

In a September 5 letter to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s beleaguered Afghan refugees asked the Tajik leader to halt the deportations. The letter pleaded: “We ask you to stop the process of forcible return of Afghan refugees so that we can continue our daily life in peaceful Tajikistan and in the future have the opportunity to move to third countries that accept refugees.”

The desire of Afghan refugees in Central Asia, and elsewhere in South Asia, to migrate to Western nations is foiled by their own labyrinthine immigration processes. For example, although the U.S. has a few programs targeting Afghan refugees (including the the Special Immigrant Visa program, and the P-1 and P-2 programs) few Afghans eligible under the priority programs have been successfully resettled. The two priority programs, P-1 and P-2, require applicants to relocate to third countries and wait, often more than a year, for their applications to be processed. The experience of Afghan refugees in Tajikistan underscores how difficult waiting may be.

Tajik authorities have not directly responded in public to the UNHCR complaint, but an Internal Affairs Ministry spokesman told Asia Plus, a Tajik news site, that one person had been expelled for violating the “rules of stay.” 

In its UPR submission in April 2021, UNHCR noted that Tajikistan strictly regulates where refugees can live in the country, isolating them to a list of settlements and prohibiting refugees from residing in the country’s two largest cities, Dushanbe and Khujand. “The continued implementation” of Tajikistan’s current rules “negatively affects access of refugees and asylum-seekers to the labor market, health care, education, housing and other services…non-compliance results in the rejection of asylum applications, and administrative penalties. Rejection of asylum applications for such non-compliance raises the risk of refoulement.”

Tajikistan is not alone in troubling treatment of refugees. In August 2022, Afghans rallied in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, demanding resettlement to the United States or Canada. Some of the refugees, Kloop reported, had been in Kyrgyzstan for 20 years, “but still cannot legally work, study, buy real estate and travel outside Kyrgyzstan.” 

Uzbekistan, as of the end of 2021, hosted only “12 refugees recognized by UNHCR according to its mandate.” Meanwhile in November 2021, UNHCR noted, the Uzbek government “reported that 13,020 Afghan citizens had arrived in the country in 2021 on short-term visas.” Reluctance to recognize refugees for what they are locks them into precarity and uncertainty, unsure if their visas will be extended; overstaying a visa is grounds for expulsion. At the same time, Uzbekistan seems to have taken up European Union offers of assistance for Afghan refugees, with recent news that the EU and UNICEF will direct 1.6 million euros to Surkhandarya region to support education, social services, and legal assistance for the local community, including Afghans.