When civil war broke out in Syria, Usama Nuraldin was a successful businessman raising a young family in Damascus. Now, he is a jobless refugee in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, one of a tiny handful of those forced to flee the brutal conflict to have made a new home in Central Asia.
“At first, it wasn’t a full-blown war, [but] after three or four months, life started changing,” the 35-year-old Damascene told EurasiaNet.org. “There were explosions and people killing each other every day. It was terrifying.”
The last straw came when rebel fighters burned down Nuraldin’s clothes shop after he refused to subscribe to their cause. “They started threatening us: ‘If you’re not with us, we’ll kill you or arrest you.’ Then I decided to come to Kazakhstan,” he said.
Kazakhstan is not on the frontline of the Syrian refugee crisis. It is home to just 27 out of an estimated 4 million Syrians who have fled their country to start new lives abroad. That is a drop in the ocean. But President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration, which is currently bidding for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, is determined to polish its international credentials by offering some Syrians a home.
Bernard Doyle, the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) representative for Central Asia, told EurasiaNet.org that was “very positive,” even if “the reality, of course, is that [Kazakhstan] is remote from the theater.”
Welcome praise, since Kazakhstan last made headlines about refugees with the deportation in 2010 to neighboring Uzbekistan of 30 failed asylum seekers who were reportedly at risk of torture and persecution for their religious beliefs.
These days, Astana strives for a more positive image. Last year, it offered homes to five former Guantanamo inmates, although linguistic and cultural misunderstandings have created integration problems for the men.
Many Syrian refugees are integrating more smoothly, since they already had links with Kazakhstan and can speak some Russian or Kazakh. A member of the United Kingdom’s unelected upper chamber of parliament, Lord Desai, suggested in September that Central Asian nations might even be persuaded to take in more Syrians on account of their shared religious beliefs.
Nuraldin studied medicine in Almaty before dropping out for financial reasons. He married a Kazakhstani citizen, who moved with him to Damascus in 2006.
When the couple and their three young children fled the Syrian war for Kazakhstan, they found the authorities “very understanding,” he said.
The Migration Police, which deals with refugees, was quick to approve his refugee status, granting him access to healthcare and employment – if he can find a job, which he has not yet managed to do.
The government provides no welfare benefits. Many refugees subsist on Red Crescent handouts and find work in the shadow economy – like Muhammad, who works as a security guard for $130 a month, around one-third of Kazakhstan’s average salary.
Offering only a pseudonym because of his illegal employment, Muhammad is full of praise for Kazakh consular officials in Damascus, who “helped a lot” in navigating bureaucracy for him to gain asylum as he extricated himself, his Kazakhstani wife and five children from war-torn Homs in 2013.
Things can be trickier for those without an established prior link to Kazakhstan. For example, Yasser Kohl’s asylum bid was rejected, and – after losing a legal battle waged up to the Supreme Court – he lives illegally in Kazakhstan with his Syrian wife and children as they have nowhere else to go, he told Esquire Kazakhstan magazine in October. Proving his case was virtually impossible without documentation he could not extract from a war zone, said Kohl, who received no explanation for the rejection.
Reluctance in granting asylum to Syrians appears connected to official alarmism about radicalism in Kazakhstan. Officials have aired concerns about the involvement of Kazakhstani citizens in the Syrian conflict. Such worries are not unique to Kazakhstan, as demonstrated by the controversy over receiving Syrian refugees that erupted in the wake of the Paris attacks, despite the UNHCR chief pointing out that it is “absolute nonsense” to blame refugees for terrorism.
Asylum seekers can also become entangled in a legislative thicket, since Kazakhstan’s refugee law requires proof of personally targeted, as opposed to general, persecution, Eduardo Yrezabal de la Torre, UNHCR deputy representative for Central Asia, told EurasiaNet.org. The definition is based on the 1951 international refugee convention, although nowadays many western countries use a wider definition that makes people fleeing conflict eligible for protection.
Kazakhstan has broadly “been adhering, or trying to adhere, to the commitments assumed under the 1951 convention,” says de la Torre. “The problem I see is not lack of willingness. It’s more legislative imperfection.”
With things as they are, refugees are forever doomed to temporary status, creating insecurity and hampering integration, de la Torre said.
Refugees are granted one-year status which they can renew indefinitely, but there is no pathway to citizenship. Permanent residence is costly, requiring proof of solvency to the tune of $8,300.
For Kazakhstan, there is a simple solution to the refugee question, the UNHCR believes: total integration.
Kazakhstan is home to just 662 officially-recognized refugees (593 Afghans, 27 Syrians and others from countries nearby, like Uzbekistan, and far-flung, like Somalia). That is just 0.003 percent of Kazakhstan’s 17.6 million population.
With such tiny numbers, Kazakhstan has a unique opportunity to set a global example by granting permanent residence and a pathway to citizenship, thus showing that “people don’t have to be refugees for their whole lives,” Doyle said.
Although his business has been destroyed and his house in Damascus has been occupied by fighters, Nuraldin hopes to return one day. “We want the war to end and to go home,” he says. “We hope and pray it will all be over soon.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.