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Kyrgyz Refugees Long for Recognition

Poverty and lack of legal status hit women hardest in the refugee community.
By Aida Kasymalieva

Eight years after the Tajik civil war, some of the refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan say they continue to face discrimination because they have been unable to take out citizenship there. In this community, which is overwhelmingly of ethnic Kyrgyz origin, women find themselves further marginalised by poverty and lack of education.


Most of the Kyrgyz refugees live in the Chui region around the capital Bishkek in the north of Kyrgyzstan. Some have gone back to Tajikistan or acquired Kyrgyz passports over the years, but for those still in limbo the lack of a local passport – which here is used as an essential form of ID rather than just for foreign travel – is a serious obstacle in almost every area of life.


“We are deprived of everything,” said Altynay Jamalova, 27, who lives in Vasilevka, a village near Bishkek largely inhabited by refugees. “We can’t obtain a certificate of [high-school] education and then find a job. We can only do unskilled labour for miserable pay, and even that is too much for us. In order to lease land, we also need documents! So we can’t even feed ourselves.”


Most of the refugees came from the high mountain plateau of the Pamirs in eastern Tajikistan, where Kyrgyz communities lived by raising livestock, mostly yaks that are one of the few animals to thrive at such high altitudes.


There were about 65,000 Kyrgyz in Tajikistan in the last Soviet census of 1989. Many left for Kyrgyzstan during the 1992-97 Tajik conflict, and while thousands have gone back, in part helped by a United Nations programme, it is unclear how many now live in Tajikistan.


Bazarkul Kerimbaeva, the head of the refugees office at the Kyrgyz foreign ministry’s migration department, told IWPR that of the 18,000 people granted refugee status as a result of the Tajik civil war – 90 per cent of whom were ethnic Kyrgyz - several thousand had gone back home. Of those who remained, 7,000 had been granted Kyrgyz citizenship, and just 3,000 refugees remained.


However, Sapar Bekkeldiev, coordinator of Booruker-Urmat, a non-government organisation that helps migrants, suggests the official figure of 3,000 may be a gross underestimate, since those Kyrgyz who came into the country after the end of the Tajik conflict were not accorded formal refugee status by the authorities in Bishkek.


“We always talk about ‘refugee rights’. But in this case, a great many people have come from Tajikistan, and some of them do not have refugee status at all. They were denied this status after 1997. But people continued to come here from Tajikistan after that date,” said Bekkeldiev.


“We recently conducted a questionnaire-based poll of ethnic Kyrgyz from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China. This showed that 36,000 people have been unable to acquire a Kyrgyz passport….. It would be more correct to talk of the problems facing ‘ethnic Kyrgyz from Tajikistan’ or ‘migrants’.”


Whatever the actual figures, the thousands of Kyrgyz from Tajikistan who remain without passports find doors closed to them from the moment they are born.


The lack of ID means women cannot give birth in maternity hospitals, babies cannot be receive a birth certificate. As the children grow up, they can attend school but cannot get a leaving certificate.


“I gave birth at home, under primitive conditions with the help of a medicine woman. Thank God, my child and I survived,” said one of the refugees, 23-year-old Matluba Shakirova. “My relatives are not well-informed enough to know anything about rights, and they aren’t rich enough to ‘reach agreement’ with the doctor [pay a bribe]. They wouldn’t let me into the maternity hospital because I didn’t have a [passport] document.


“Now my child is growing up without a birth certificate. We can’t go to a doctor to get him examined. What should I do if he falls seriously ill? Treat him with folk remedies?”


Another right that the refugees say they are denied is legal marriage and the protections that affords.


Matluba’s neighbour, 27-year-old Minovar, recalled, “When we got married, we didn’t receive a marriage certificate. If my husband leaves us, he may simply throw us out. No one can force him to pay alimony or give his wife part of his property. And our children have had no right to anything since the day they were born. They do not officially exist in Kyrgyzstan.”


The Booruker-Urmat group estimates that two out of every five refugee children, most of them girls, come from families too poor to send them to school.


Eighteen-year-old Mairam Ikramova is illiterate after attending just one year of school back in Tajikistan before her family became refugees.


“We didn’t have the money to by clothes, pens and exercise books,” explained Mairam’s mother Apal Hamitova. “Out of my children, it’s not just Mairam who didn’t go to school - neither did the younger ones. Now they’ll probably remain illiterate all their lives. How can they catch up on what they’ve missed?”


As well as economic reasons, girls’ education is inhibited by conservative values among the Kyrgyz refugee community.


Maksat and Muborak Alieva, aged 16 and 14 respectively, arrived from Jirgatal in Tajikistan nine years ago, when the civil war was still under way. They too live in Vasilevka. Because the village used to be inhabited by ethnic Russians and Germans, who have emigrated in the years since Kyrgyzstan became independent, the only school still uses Russian rather than Kyrgyz as the teaching medium, which only compounds the problem of getting families to allow their daughters to attend.


In a village with several hundred residents, the Aliev sisters are the only female refugee children to go.


“Of the ‘Tajik Kyrgyz’, only my sister and I go to school. No one studies – about 90 per cent of the ‘Tajik Kyrgyz’ girls don’t get a high-school education,” said Muborak. “It’s hard for us too, because according to our traditions girls are supposed to wear headscarves, which is forbidden in schools in Kyrgyzstan. We don’t know what we should do: get an education or please our families.”


Ainura Sharafidinova, 17, dropped out of the Vasilevka school recently, and says, “I don’t go because I don’t know Russian. And my friends and acquaintances from Tajikistan don’t go to school either. It’s time to think about getting married.”


Maksat concluded sadly, “The lot of the girls from Tajikistan is to work in the fields, go about in long dresses and never to contradict the men in the family. The men don’t like it if girls even go to school, let alone university.”


Zievidin Badirov, who heads Booruker-Urmat’s information centre, says another tradition – the abduction of young women for forced marriage – is an additional factor deterring parents from sending their daughters to school.


“Nowadays, girls are not attending school because of barbaric traditions. Back in Tajikistan, they [Kyrgyz] did not have the tradition of bride-stealing,” said Badirov.


“But in recent years they too have learnt to steal brides, as the local Kyrgyz do. Now they hover outside the school gates watching the girls. Even 14- and 15-year-olds get abducted. To avoid this fate, the girls stop going to school, and their parents make an early arranged marriage for them.”


Poverty not only stops young women from studying, but forces them to do heavy unskilled labour – especially as many of the men in rural areas are away in Russia working as migrant labour.


“We go to the field every day and work there in teams,” said 30-year-old Zinakan Abdraimova. “What about the lads? They go off to Russia to work. And elderly men are not supposed to work.”


Suyun Kurmanova, a journalist who also works with Sezim, a women’s crisis centre, argues that the refugees’ poor economic prospects and their lack of legal status are interlinked.


“There are more infringements of women’s rights among the refugees. Their living conditions are much worse than for local Kyrgyz…. Their first priority is to feed and clothe themselves. But education and other things are naturally postponed indefinitely,” said Kurmanova. “They were not met with open arms in Kyrgyzstan. Many of them live for years without documents and are unable to acquire citizenship. Sometimes, because they don’t have documents, women cannot go to maternity wards or hospitals.


The head of the Adilet human rights organisation, Cholpon Jakupova, says that the refugees from Tajikistan are suffering the same kinds of problems that others face in Kyrgyzstan, only more so because they are at the bottom of the heap.


“As a rule, the lower the level of income in the family, and the lower the level of education, the earlier girls are married off,” said Jakupova. “What is happening in our society is reflected more strongly among vulnerable groups.”


At the end of May, the Kyrgyz parliament ratified an arrangement that will simplify the procedures for people from Tajikistan to renounce that identity and acquire Kyrgyz passports. But this is an inter-government agreement with Tajikistan, whose parliament has yet to approve it.


“It has taken a long time for the refugee agreement between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to come into force,” said political analyst Nur Omarov. “Above all, the refugees need to be given citizenship – because they are all our Kyrgyz brothers. Only then will they be able to find jobs, get some privileges and enjoy the rights of citizens of Kyrgyzstan.


“Many of them currently lead the lives of people unwanted by the state, and this increasingly worsens not just the position of women, but general human rights among their community.”


The refugees still hoping to get Kyrgyz passports say it is now too late to consider the alternative option – going back to Tajikistan.


“We spent all our money and sold all our property to get here,” said Jamalova. “It’s even more difficult over there [Tajikistan] than it is in Kyrgyzstan, especially as we are ethnic Kyrgyz. We may be a bit different from local Kyrgyz, but this is our historical homeland.


Bazargul Dilmuratova, 80, added, “Who would be waiting for us there? To return to Tajikistan, we’d need a great deal of effort and money, and we are so tired of all this moving around and the warfare.


“We just hope life in Kyrgyzstan will work out, that we’ll be given passports, and that we will be able to work and find our way out of this poverty.”


Aida Kasymalieva is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL, in Bishkek.


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