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

Astana Concern Over Migrants

Growing numbers of illegal immigrants are flocking to southern Kazakstan
By Daur Dosybiev

Less than a week after the terrorist atrocities in New York and Washington, Rakhat Aliev, deputy chairman of the Kazak Committee of National Security arrived to inspect the country's southern border, accompanied by Bolat Zakiev, commander of the frontier patrol units. The guests announced themselves satisfied with what they had seen, "The border is fully under control," declared Aliev.

However, just a few days later, local police in the southern city of Turkestan had detained four people who were making their way to the railway station where the Bishkek-Moscow train was shortly due to arrive. The four suspects presented Tajik passports, but investigations soon revealed them to be Afghan citizens. Taking advantage of the fact that the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is extremely porous, they had crossed illegally and reached Turkestan by taxi, with the intention of proceeding to Russia by train. They are now in custody.

Central Asia has been a magnet for refugees from Afghanistan for some years, so it is quite possible that the four detainees were already resident in Tajikistan and were merely trying to move deeper into Central Asia as the "War on Terrorism" gains momentum. Nor is there any reason to suspect that these particular individuals represented a security threat or belonged to an extremist organization. However, the ease with which they crossed the border into Kazakstan and moved through the territory does give cause for concern, as terrorists armed with huge funds earned from the drugs trade could easily choose to adopt the same route.

Indeed, the next day, Kazak border guards at the Jibek Joly crossing detained five buses coming from Uzbekistan. The 300 passengers appeared to be Tajik citizens en route to Russia, via the northern districts of Kazakstan. Four buses from the same convoy were detained on the Uzbek side of the border: needless to say, none of the passengers possessed the necessary documents.

Uzbek-Kazak border districts have reported a dramatic upsurge in the number of Tajik and Afghan citizens detained while trying to enter Kazakstan without adequate documentation. Commentators are viewing this as the first trickle in an impending tidal wave of refugees which will follow any military actions in Afghanistan.

The Kazak security services are already warning that such an influx could be infiltrated by all manner of extremists. To this end, the chief of the southern Kazakstan immigration police has announced a full-scale operation, which will involve placing 70 per cent of the relevant services on red alert.

Officially, operation Migrant has been in preparation since the beginning of the year, but the deputy chief of immigration police Baltabek Ablaev has acknowledged that it was prompted by the sudden increase of tensions in the Central Asia following the atrocities in the US.

Bordering on Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the region forms a transit route between Central Asia, Russia and the rest of Europe, so the amount of illegal immigration or drug-smuggling from Afghanistan or other central Asian states is dictated by security on the border. Moreover, in the last few years, southern Kazakstan has become a magnet for illegal migrants from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

As no visas are required, they arrive in Kazakstan without any documentation and get work in the many markets in the region. A language barrier encourages Tajiks to live separately and their way of life is closed to outsiders. There are also a number of Tajik gypsies or "Lyuli" who mainly rely on begging.

But the immigration issue in Kazakstan is more complex than it first appears. While the government does not want to admit Afghan refugees, the authorities are eager to encourage ethnic Kazaks from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey to return to their homeland. This forms part of an official policy to solve the general problem of demographic decline and also increase the percentage of Kazaks, since during the Soviet era the country was the only Central Asian republic where the indigenous population was outnumbered by Slavs - in the form of Russians, Ukrainians and Germans.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the population of Kazakstan fell from 16 to 15 million, although unofficial estimates claim the latter figure is even lower, at 14 million. The decline was the product of a low birthrate, combined with the mass migration of ethnic Germans and Russians.

Returning Kazaks are so far estimated at around 50,000. Central funds are allocated for their reception and settlement - since the start of the year 2000, 560,000 US dollars has been allocated from the state budget for housing. The majority will be settled in the southern Kazakstan region, SKR, which in the last 10 years has also absorbed over 50,000 non-Kazak immigrants from abroad, although the extent of illegal immigration means this can only be deemed as estimate. Indeed, even returning Kazaks eligible for state assistance do not always officially register their arrival. Since September 11 alone, more than 2000 families are thought to have arrived from Uzbekistan.

Father of four, Shukur left his home in the Fergana valley, having sold his two cows and couple of dozen sheep for almost nothing. "Of course, it's a pity to leave everything that I've worked hard for," he said. "But we cannot stay in Fergana - under constant fear of the Taleban and gunmen from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan".

Nurali, from the Kashkadaria region of Uzbekistan, is open about his reasons for returning to his ancestral homeland: security and standard of living. "If Taleban cross over into Uzbekistan, the poor farmers who have lost almost everything may not support them, but they won't fight them either," he said.

However, life in Kazakstan is not entirely rosy for the returnees. Head of immigration, Sherim Asylbekov, acknowledges that to date around one thousand families have yet to be housed, and many not yet received their transport costs or one-off allowances. Out of 86,000 US dollars allocated in the 1998 budget for immigration to the region, only half was actually delivered.

With longer-term immigrants still in need, the fear is that if the mass of new arrivals are exposed to even worse hardship, then southern Kazakstan risks becoming a fertile ground for agitators and a platform for an outside attack.

Daur Dosybiev is a journalist in Kazakstan