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Concern at Plans to Expel Afghan Refugees From Tajik Capital

Recent arrivals told they must leave Dushanbe and live wherever their residence papers were issued.
By Salimakhon Vahobzade
Afghan refugees in the Tajik capital are appealing for protection after being ordered to leave Dushanbe and move to areas mostly in the south of the country.

A group of Afghans have petitioned the Tajikistan office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, asking it to safeguard their rights to housing and work. UNHCR is reportedly negotiating with the authorities, but would give no comment to IWPR.

Tajik police issued instructions in early June that those Afghan refugees registered as resident in areas outside the capital must go and live there. The official reason is that refugees who have found work in Dushanbe are breaching labour and residence regulations.

Tajikistan has had several influxes of refugees from its southern neighbour because of successive conflicts there in the last two decades. This measure, though, seems to apply mainly to those who have arrived since 2000.

In late 2000, a year before the United States-led Coalition routed the Taleban, fighting between the Islamic movement and the “Northern Alliance” group holding out against it sparked a new wave of refugees.

The Tajik authorities refused to let them in, arguing that some of them were armed, so they remained stuck in no-man’s land. More Afghans joined them to escape fighting between the Coalition and the Taleban the following autumn.

Those who were allowed to settle in Tajikistan after that time were required to live in largely rural areas, mainly close to the southern border.

But many have since found their way to the capital where it easier for them to find work, often in trade and business. Official figures put the number of Afghan refugees in Tajikistan at 900, while other estimates put the figure closer to 2,000.

There have been regular police raids to catch illegal migrants in Dushanbe since 2000, and while the numbers have fallen significantly, refugees registered in other parts of the country still come to the city in search of work.

The head of Tajikistan’s Agency for Social Welfare and Migration, Anvar Boboev, told IWPR that the new restriction applies only to migrants who have arrived in the last two years, while those refugees who obtained residence rights in Dushanbe prior to that have the right to remain.

His explanation for the expulsion plan was that “if large numbers of foreign nationals start living in the city, it is inconvenient for the locals”.

After receiving 60 letters and complaints from its nationals, the Afghan embassy has now asked the Tajik foreign ministry to examine their case.

Embassy official Hamid Timur said the new regulations fail to take into account the fact that many Afghans are forced to go to Dushanbe to find work and a school where their children can study in the Dari language.

In addition, as foreigners, the Afghans felt safer in a big city, said Timur. “They fear for their lives because in remote villages the police do virtually nothing,” he said.

The Tajik foreign ministry insists that no one is being treated unfairly. An official ministry representative, Davlatali Nazriev, told IWPR that Tajikistan’s refugee legislation has remained unchanged since 2000 and requires forced migrants to live where they are registered.

He said a recent police check on passports revealed that a large number of Afghans were living and working in Dushanbe illegally – in breach of that law.

“These refugees are not being deported out of the country; all they have to do is obey its laws. Many of them are registered as residents in [various] regions but live in the capital,” he said.

Shokirjon Hakimov, the deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic Party, condemns attempts to move the Afghans out of the capital.

“The government’s decision is inappropriate and runs counter to the [good] relationship between Tajikistan and Afghanistan,” he said. “The Afghan diaspora has given the Tajikistan authorities no reason to adopt such extreme measures.”

Many of the Afghans in Dushanbe cited schooling as a reason why they needed to break the resident rules. Although Dari is more or less the same Persian language as Tajik, it is written in Arabic rather than Cyrillic script.

Ghulam Sakhi has residence papers for Tursunzade in the west of Tajikistan, but rents an apartment in Dushanbe and works at a shopping centre so that his children can go to an Afghan school.

“My children go to the embassy’s school here, where they meet other Afghan children and study Afghanistan’s school curriculum,” he said.

Boboev, however, believes integration is best for the refugees, and their children should therefore attend Tajik schools.

“There are now around 60 Afghan children studying at mainstream Dushanbe schools. You can’t set up special schools for refugees wherever they live,” he said. “We have no language barriers with the Afghans. I don’t think it can be too difficult for them to send their children to Tajik schools.”

According to her residence status, Mina Zalmai should be living in Qubodiyon district some 160 kilometres south of the capital, but she and her family are in Dushanbe. She said people like them were making a positive contribution to society, so the Tajik authorities should show them a little more understanding.

“My husband has a business in Dushanbe, and thanks to him several Tajik nationals have permanent jobs – that reduces poverty in this country. We pay our taxes and obey the law,” she said.

Salimakhon Vahobzade and Ruhshona Alieva, a pseudonym, are IWPR contributors in Dushanbe.

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