Migrants, refugees, students and business people – these are the major groups of Afghans living in nearby Kyrgyzstan. Of late, new asylum-seekers have been joining them, fleeing Afghanistan’s uncertain future with the coming withdrawal of NATO troops and using the country as a transit stop on their routes to North America, Western Europe or Russia. Similar to Afghanistan, post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has been politically unstable, although to a much lesser extent, and Afghans living there have not been unaffected by it. AAN researcher S. Reza Kazemi who studied in Kyrgyzstan and recently visited the country again reports from Bishkek.
Visit the lively Dordoi Bazaar, Central Asia’s biggest public wholesale and retail marketplace, and the busy Osh Bazaar or go to the Afghan non-governmental organisation Dusti (Dari, meaning friendship) if you want to find and talk to ordinary Afghans in Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek. These are perhaps the quickest ways in this Central Asian republic, which became independent with the dissolution of the USSR in late 1991, to find out how common Afghans are doing not only in this country but also in the region as a whole.
Many Afghans – several of whom have married women from Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere – are running shops and businesses in Bishkek’s Dordoi and Osh Bazaars and elsewhere in the country. Others work in businesses owned by Kyrgyzstan’s nationals. Although they make a living under difficult conditions, the situation of the former seems to be better and more protected than the latter.
There is also a group of Afghans who do not have major problems living and working in Kyrgyzstan. They, most of them traders, have acquired citizenship in Kyrgyzstan after spending many years in the country. Mostafa, who has spent 13 years in Kyrgyzstan and represents the Alokozai tea company in Osh, told AAN that he is satisfied with his job and has no problems with the police or other people as he has gotten used to the society’s way of life. Afghans like Mostafa have obtained Kyrgyzstani passports and have largely been assimilated into the society as the ‘new Kyrgyzstanis’.
Most Afghans, however, do not find life easy in Kyrgyzstan (see also here), but the condition of Afghan migrants without papers is particularly dire. They are not officially allowed to work in this country, which is the second poorest Central Asian state. The Kyrgyzstani police keep harassing and taking bribes from them, as Gol Ghotai, an Afghan refugee, told AAN in the Dusti office. (This is, however, normal practice even for Kyrgyzstan’s nationals and other residents in the country.)
Reflecting a broadly shared view among many Afghans in the country, Bibi Nazok, another female refugee, stated, ‘But we’re happy here. We can move freely. Our minds are calm. There isn’t war here. We prefer this to living in Afghanistan.’
As an NGO, Dusti is run mostly by Afghan women and supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), among others. Located in a small Soviet-era apartment not far from the centre of Bishkek, the organisation is providing literacy and other courses for Afghans, particularly children, some of whom have been born in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries. Dusti’s curriculum includes, among other things, Afghanistan’s history and geography as well as Dari, English, Pashto and Russian languages, so that students and their families continue to have a sense of their country. At the same time, this enables them to live and function effectively in a changing Central Asian environment. In a painting event organised by Dusti, eight-year-old Wali Sudaba painted, on a sheet of paper, four differently coloured people on a map of the world, with this sentence – in Russian – at the top right: ‘I wish that we all live peacefully’.
Kyrgyzstan itself has been seriously lagging behind in employment creation and other forms of socio-economic development for its own people. About a third of Kyrgyzstan’s workforce has left the country and is seeking employment abroad, particularly in Russia. Migrant workers in Russia and elsewhere sent home USD 860 million in the first half of 2012, which, according to the World Bank, constitutes 21 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s gross domestic product (GDP). Percentage-wise, this puts the country at fifth place in the world with regard to dependency on migrant workers’ remittances. In this sense, refugees, including those from Afghanistan who went to Kyrgyzstan in larger numbers during the Taleban regime, have been called ‘another headache’ for the impoverished country (see a report from 2001 here).
Of late, Kyrgyzstan has again been among the countries – although to a limited extent – to which some Afghans, most of them young and in search of a better life, are fleeing due to doubts about Afghanistan’s situation after the NATO drawdown in 2014. The UN received more than 30,000 applications from Afghans for political asylum in various parts of the world in the first eleven months of 2011 alone (read here and here). Despite various queries, AAN was unable to get specific figures for Kyrgyzstan.
Other Afghan refugees have been in Kyrgyzstan for a long time (see, for example, here). Some were students who remained in Kyrgyzstan when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and waged a decade-long and disastrous war with their Afghan allies against the mujahedin. Some others went to Kyrgyzstan in the late 1990s, mostly to escape the repression of the Taleban regime. The stories of the different waves of refugees largely represent the political story of Afghanistan itself.
There are also many funded and self-financed Afghan students in universities, mainly in Bishkek as well as in Osh and Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan. Three main destinations for them in Bishkek are the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Academy and the International Ataturk Alatoo University (IAAU). Several students have been sent there by The Dostum Foundation, the ‘charity organisation’ established by commander-turned-politician Abdul Rashid Dostum, leader of Jombesh-e Melli-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan (National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan) (read AAN’s recent paper on the latest developments in the party here), according to members of the Foundation and the party’s youth wing interviewed by AAN in Kabul.
All in all, there are now roughly 2,000 Afghans, many of them educated and skilled, living in Kyrgyzstan. Eight hundred of them have refugee status with the UNHCR of which 100 have expressed their willingness to repatriate and contribute to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Thirty-three returned to Mazar-e Sharif in 2002 via Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as part of the first organised repatriation of Afghan refugees from Kyrgyzstan. It seems that further organised repatriation has been either suspended or simply stopped since then, given the consistent deterioration of Afghanistan’s security situation in the recent years. The UNHCR country representation repeatedly declined to provide updates.
There is also controversy over the status of Afghans in Kyrgyzstan. On the one hand, several Afghans interviewed by AAN in Bishkek and Osh claimed they fled their country for political and security reasons, such as political persecution because of their ideology (communism, in most cases), armed conflict and crime (particularly kidnappings of the children of wealthy Afghans). On the other hand, the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and also an Afghan diplomatic source in Kyrgyzstan, who spoke to AAN on conditions of anonymity, maintain that most Afghans are simply seeking a better life in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere (see here and here). Although many Afghans are economic migrants, there are definitely refugees whose lives would be at risk if they were sent back to Afghanistan, as AAN understood when meeting some in Osh.
A number of Afghans who fled from violence in their country faced another violent conflict in Kyrgyzstan. Khoshhal, an Afghan shopkeeper in Osh, told AAN that many Afghans had to flee southern Kyrgyzstan for Bishkek in the wake of the appalling June 2010 ethnic conflict in Osh and Jalalabad, a result of fear and business losses.(1) Azim, an Afghan student in Osh, said that the Afghan defence ministry sent a plane and transported Afghan students from southern Kyrgyzstan back to their home country. According to an Afghan diplomat in Bishkek, the request came from Astana, in neighbouring Kazakhstan, since there was no Afghan embassy in Kyrgyzstan then. AAN did not come across any reports about Afghan casualties in the violence.
The conflict had catastrophic proportions, with about 470 people killed, 1,900 injured and approximately 2,800 buildings damaged. Some 300,000 people were displaced, and about 111,000 people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, crossed the border to Uzbekistan. Ethnic Uzbeks suffered disproportionately: they accounted for 75 per cent of casualties, 90 per cent of property losses and about 80 per cent of indictments. Ethno-nationalism, particularly of the Kyrgyz variety, has been growing particularly in the south of the country,(2) and relations between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks still remain tense with justice yet to be accomplished. An AAN foreign interlocutor in a highly conservative and outlying Uzbek village in the south said the ethnic Uzbeks did not see much future for themselves in Kyrgyzstan.(3)
Kyrgyzstan is, hence, generally not an attractive choice for Afghan refugees and migrant workers. Therefore, it has recently become a transit point rather than a settlement option for Afghan asylum-seekers. For example, 525 Afghan refugees left Kyrgyzstan for Canada in 2004 in co-ordination with the UNHCR (see here and here). According to the Afghans who talked to AAN, this encouraged more Afghan asylum-seekers to come to Kyrgyzstan, particularly from Tajikistan, with expectations of getting resettled in North America. Almost all interviewees told AAN that they would leave Kyrgyzstan the day they find a way to North America, Western Europe or Russia.
Things can change, however, particularly depending on how Afghanistan’s situation evolves in the lead-up to and after the international military drawdown and withdrawal. How Afghanistan’s situation develops will also have implications for the Afghan community in Kyrgyzstan, either for their resettlement in other countries or for their return back to Afghanistan. For now, uncertainty is what accompanies them and awaits them in the foreseeable future.
Second and third blogs to follow respectively on politicking over the repatriation of the Kyrgyz community in Afghanistan to their titular homeland and on a discussion of Central Asian perceptions about Afghanistan’s situation in the light of the ongoing international military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
(1) Recently demonstrations for the nationalisation of Kyrgyzstan’s politico-economically significant Kumtor gold mine turned violent in Bishkek on 3 October 2012 (see here and here). Kamchybek Tashiev, influential leader of the political party Ata-Jurt (Homeland), which derives the bulk of its clout from the restive southern parts of the country, even called for the overthrow of Kyrgyzstan’s government – the first burgeoning parliamentary democracy in Central Asia; he and two other party leaders have been detained and are apparently due to be tried on charges of attempt to violently seize power (read here and here). On 8 October, at least 1,500 protestors in Jalalabad demanded the release of the politicians, whose arrest has been preliminarily extended to two months. Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has been chronically politically unstable. Former Kyrgyzstan presidents Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev were removed from power in two revolutions in 2005 and 2010. Kyrgyzstan’s first woman president Roza Otunbayeva, however, managed an unprecedented peaceful political transition in late 2011, and Almazbek Atambayev took over as president in an election that largely met free and fair standards.
(2) Melis Myrzakmatov, the extraordinarily powerful Kyrgyz mayor of Osh, gained more kudos in his community through his role in the 2010 conflict between the ethnic Kyrgyz and the ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan. In a way, he resembles Ata Mohammad Nur, the powerful governor of Afghanistan’s Balkh province, with his power and bargaining ability with the central government.
(3) Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) recently reported that the Uzbek language is disappearing in educational curricula and schools even in predominantly Uzbek-inhabited areas of Kyrgyzstan.
Photo: UAE-built mosque in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh — by S. Reza Kazemi
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020