It may not be their preferred destination, but increasing numbers of Afghan refugees, seeking to escape the growing insecurity of their homeland, are making their way to Tajikistan. The former Soviet republic on Afghanistan’s northern border is seen as safer than Pakistan, less socially restrictive than Iran, and a more culturally familiar place, as many of the refugees speak a dialect of Tajik.
Yet even relative to Pakistan and Iran -- the traditional destinations for refugees fleeing Afghanistan’s 30-plus years of war -- Tajikistan is desperately poor. Jobs are scarce. Most of the Afghan refugees live in chronic poverty, as about half of their host nation does.
Semen Khan, a 30-year-old mother of six, can only afford to send two of her children to school. Her husband, like many Afghans in Tajikistan, works as a trader in a local market. Their house is furnished simply with a pile of blankets. Such a Spartan existence is typical among the refugees. But for Khan, like most Afghans, Tajikistan offers something priceless: security. “We are safer here,” Khan says.
Over the past three years, the number of Afghans refugees in Tajikistan has tripled to approximately 5,000. Three-quarters of newly arriving Afghans are ethnic Tajiks, according to UN estimates.
Government regulations prohibit Afghans who arrived after 2000 from living in Dushanbe, or in the northern economic hub, Khujand. Instead, the government has settled many in the ramshackle former industrial town of Vakhdat, some 15 kilometers from Dushanbe, where their prospects are bleak. Life is especially hard in winter when the Vakhdat suffers from extended power cuts, a lack of heating and water.
Competition over resources means that Afghan refugees face enduring suspicion. After all, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), around 18 percent of adult Tajiks work abroad.
Suida, a 30-year-old widow and mother of seven, whose husband was killed by a 2003 suicide bombing in Kandahar, is one of the many jobless refugees. She relies on support from her brother, who also lives in Vakhdat and has a family of nine to support. “There is nothing for us here,” says Suida, who refused to provide her last name for fear of government reprisals. “No jobs, no money, little food.”
There are three main options for refugees: resettlement, repatriation or integration. The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, offers legal and social counseling, small grants for vulnerable persons, and certified vocational training courses. However, “these solutions are not permanent,” Ilija Todorovic, the UNHCR representative in Dushanbe, says. Most parties, including the Tajik government, view resettlement outside of Tajikistan as the best option.
Through the UNHCR, around 2,000 Afghans in Tajikistan have been resettled, primarily in Canada and the United States. The organization hopes to expand the resettlement program this year. In addition, several thousand refugees have found private means to leave Tajikistan.
They have growing reasons to leave, they say. Tajik government officials view the Afghans warily, concerned they might help spread Islamic extremism from Afghanistan. Without protection, many refugees say they are subject to mounting harassment.
For example, Raful, 24, works at a Dushanbe bazaar. After a high-profile prison break in August, in which 25 accused radicals escaped and may have subsequently fought government troops in the Rasht Valley, Raful says the Tajik police started visiting his stall, extorting money and threatening to close his business. They claimed he possessed a fake refugee card and suggested he had links with the fugitives, he told EurasiaNet.org on condition his last name not be published. His experience reflects those of many Afghans in Tajikistan. Some claim to have had to pay $500 in bribes to obtain their refugee cards.
Tajikistan is the only Central Asian state willing to admit refugees from Afghanistan, says the UNHCR’s Todorovic. Given its status as the poorest post-Soviet republic, this is “pretty amazing.”
Tajikistan’s larger, richer neighbors Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- which both also border on Afghanistan -- have not allowed any refugees to stay. Dushanbe’s relatively accommodating policy continues because during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war, during which some 80,000 Tajiks fled to Afghanistan. The Tajik government is now returning the favor, Todorovic believes.
Even so, the Tajik government keeps a close eye on numbers, fearing the country’s shaky infrastructure could be overwhelmed. Afghans also say they are eager to move on. In Vakhdat, Abdul Aziz, 45, summarized the feelings of many refugees: “We do not want to stay here, we want to be resettled. But with no money or connections, we are stuck.”
Edward Lemon is a freelance journalist based in Dushanbe.