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Bishkek Refugee Fears

Kyrgyzstan is fearful of being overwhelmed by Afghans fleeing looming conflict in their country.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Kyrgyzstan is readying itself to be on the front line of the growing humanitarian crisis in nearby Afghanistan.


Although it does not have a common border with the Islamic republic, Kyrgyzstan neighbours Tajikistan which has 1500 km frontier with the Taleban-led state.


The turmoil of the last twenty years in Afghanistan has already seen around 1500 Afghan citizens settle in this tiny former Soviet republic. The authorities are now braced for the arrival of many thousands more.


In Bishkek, men from the Afghan community gather daily at a community centre to watch television and receive news about their former homeland. These individuals have arrived in Kyrgyzstan at different times over the last two decades and for different reasons. Some fled during the Soviet era, having fallen foul of the Kabul authorities, while others have sought shelter from recent civil conflicts.


Said Omar is manager of The Foundation for Support of Refugees in Bishkek. An Afghan himself, Omar studied at the Tomak Flight School in Kyrgyzstan during the Seventies and is married to a Kyrgyz woman. The couple and their children were living in Afghanistan but having endured several changes of government decided to leave when the civil war began. His brother remains in Afghanistan, and, like many others, Omar follows events in the country closely, worrying for the safety of his relative.


"If America eliminates the bases of terrorists in Afghanistan, and establishes peace and understanding in the country, we will of course support them. But we are worried that, as a rule, during the large scale military actions, ordinary people suffer most of all," said Omar.


Of the Afghans already in Kyrgyzstan, half have refugee status, while the others are on temporary ID's. The latter have to fend totally for themselves. Given the country's already fragile economy, usually the only work available for most Afghan men is trading in the markets, while for woman there is little choice but to stay at home.


"We know that there is no work even for local residents so we shouldn't even speak about our women. All of us rent housing and are facing considerable material hardship," explained Omar.


Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia which provides asylum to refugees from abroad. It signed the International Convention on the Status of Refugees in 1996 and, in addition to Afghans, has been a refuge for several thousand citizens from neighbouring Tajikistan seeking to escape that country's brutal civil war.


In general, the attitude of the local population towards the refugees mirrors that of their benevolent government. Nina Victorovna lives in an apartment block in Bishkek and has many refugees for neighbours. "Afghans are peaceful and quite sympathetic people. I particularly like their children, they are so disciplined and deeply respect elders," she said.


However, some are distrustful. A feeling apparently deepened by the recent events in New York. "Maybe these are remnants of my Soviet upbringing, but the Afghans' character is peculiar and their behaviour suspicious. After the tragic events in the USA, I've started to be afraid of Afghans, Arabs and Turks," said Bishkek pensioner Maria Aksyonova.


Signs the authorities are similarly hardening their attitude came this week when police detained a number of male refugees, searching and interrogating them. Omar, who says the action violated the Afghan's human rights, has appealed to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.


One clear source of tension is the use of Kyrgyzstan as a base for Afghans seeking to enter Europe illegally. This issue has been highlighted in the local press as well as Russian media.


"The first Afghan refugees arrived here in search of asylum. They have already got used to the socio-economic conditions and the way of life of the Kyrgyz people. They live here sharing all our joys and hardships," said Bazarkul Kerimbaeva a representative of the Kyrgyzstan Department of Migration who has monitored the problem. "As to those individuals who arrived here later, it is noticeable that they regard our country as a temporary shelter, as a transit point, on their way to a more prosperous Europe."


Omar acknowledges this problem, "We are also worried by the attempts of some of our fellow country men to move to Europe at all costs. We do not approve of the behaviour of such people, as the shadow of their unlawful deeds falls on us," he said.


International help for Kyrgyzstan's refugee population is given by a UNHCR mission in Bishkek. Indeed, many of the Tajik refugees have already returned home thanks to the agency's assistance.


With countries such as Uzbekistan and Kazakstan effectively sealing their borders, it is to Kyrgyzstan that many Afghan refugees will now rush. The worry is that, having fulfilled it's international and humanitarian obligations with dignity and compassion in the past, this small country will simply be overwhelmed by the scale of the human influx caused by the current international crisis.


Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek.