Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Uzbekistan Gives Afghans No Reason to Stay
Earlier this month week, the little-known Afghan community in Uzbekistan hit international headlines when one of its number was chosen as Miss England in a British beauty contest. Hammasa Kohistani, 18, was born in Tashkent to an Afghan family who moved to Britain in 1997.
Many of the 2,500 or so Afghans who are living as refugees in Uzbekistan would also like to leave. Even though this Muslim-majority country is in many ways similar to Afghanistan, they say they have been unable to make a life there because of official hostility to their assimilation.
The numbers were never comparable to Pakistan and Iran, which between them took in about three million refugees during the Soviet occupation and mujahedin resistance of the Eighties. Uzbekistan was then part of the USSR, and Afghans who chose to come there to work or study were likely to be sympathetic to the communist regime in Kabul.
It was only in 1992, when Uzbekistan had been independent for a year, that refugees started coming across the border in large numbers as a bloody civil war erupted with the fall of the pro-Moscow government in Kabul.
The emergence of the Taleban, who arrived with a bang when they marched into Kabul in 1996, and who by the end of the Nineties were sitting across the border from Uzbekistan, created a further wave of refugees.
The groups of Afghans who arrived in the Nineties came by various routes.
“Many came legally on visas, and travelled via Pakistan or else they flew from [the northern city of] Mazar-i-Sharif to Termez, until that flight was cancelled,” said one refugee, who did not want to be named. “Some came as students, others to work.”
Some crossed the border illegally. “Do you think that it was that difficult to cross the border ten years ago?” laughed another refugee.
By the end of the Nineties, the United Nations estimated that there were around 10,000 Afghans in Uzbekistan. They represented a diverse ethnic mix – as well as ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks from the north of Afghanistan, there were Pashtuns, Hazaras and Baluchis.
Out of necessity, they quickly adjusted to their new environment. Afghan traders opened shops selling textiles, jewelry and food, and their children learned Russian and Uzbek.
But they found they could not put down roots, because the Uzbek government was so unwelcoming. The country’s former communist leaders inherited a visceral fear of their dangerous neighbour from the Soviet-Afghan conflict, which was only heightened when the Taleban appeared as a real threat on their doorstep.
The Afghans should have qualified for the rights accorded to refugees worldwide, but this did not happen, because the Uzbeks had not signed the relevant international accord.
“Uzbekistan is the only country in the former USSR that did not sign the UN convention on refugees’ rights,” explained Abdul Karim Gul, the mission head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR. “There is no structure here which deals with refugee affairs, nor is there a procedure for determining their status.”
This legal void made it hard for Afghans to integrate, and left them vulnerable to harassment from police and officialdom. UNHCR recently issued them with documents which offered a measure of protection against arrest and deportation.
Another positive step came when the UN pressured the education ministry to honour its obligations under the international convention on the rights of the child and allow Afghan children to go to school.
But the Afghan community is still excluded from the mainstream of society.
“I have not heard of a single case when an Afghan refugee took Uzbek citizenship, or when a child born to a refugee family became a citizen of Uzbekistan,” said Gul.
Apart from a very few who have won residence permits, the refugees are not legally entitled to work, so although many are well-educated, they have to find marginal jobs such as portering at the markets.
“It is very difficult here, but it was worse at home,” said 41-year-old Khadija, who left Mazar-i-Sharif with her husband and four children, in 1993, after the murder of her brother, a member of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the communists who had been ousted the previous year.
Now Khadija’s husband, who used to be a teacher, sells fabrics at a wholesale market in Tashkent. The family dreams of moving to Canada, where their relatives live.
After the end of Taleban rule in 2001, the number of refugees in Uzbekistan fell drastically from 10,000 to 6,000 in 2003, down to about 2,500 now. A few have headed home, but most – like Khadija’s relatives – move elsewhere. UN statistics show that 70 refugees were repatriated to Afghanistan, while 157 people moved to third countries.
Most aspire to move to the prosperous West – Canada, the United States, Australia, the Scandinavian countries or Australia.
The selection criteria applied by these countries include looking at the risk that sending individuals back to Afghanistan would entail, their state of health, and cases where there is no male breadwinner in the family.
Those who do not qualify often move to the less inhospitable environments of Russia or Kazakstan. The Russian foreign ministry believes there are currently up to 50,000 Afghan refugees there.
There is always the option of going back to Afghanistan. The UNHCR began a programme of voluntary repatriations in 2002, and as of the beginning of 2005, a total of 285 had returned from Uzbekistan.
In the next few weeks, the UN plans to repatriate a group of around 30 Afghan refugees from Kazakstan and Uzbekistan to their home country. But those from Uzbekistan are facing one last obstacle placed in their way by Uzbek officials, who may not want them to stay, but are delaying their departure because of an exit visa problem.
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