Only tough options for Afghans looking to escape north or west

Only tough options for Afghans looking to escape north or west
Afghan refugee girls wait at the end of a long line in the Farah City District V Refugee Camp in western Afghanistan to receive donated items sent from the US.
By Muzaffar Ismailov in Tashkent & Kanat Shaku in Almaty August 29, 2021

Up to half a million Afghans could flee their homeland by year-end, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said on August 27.

UNHCR appealed to all neighbouring countries to keep their borders open for those seeking safety.

However, latest reports from bne IntelliNews’ Eurasia correspondents show little willingness across Central Asia, Iran and Turkey to accept Afghan refugees fleeing their country’s new Taliban regime. An appeal in Mongolia, meanwhile, to welcome some of the refugees, has got nowhere.

As things stand, most Afghans trying to make it to a neighbouring country appear to be headed to either Pakistan or Iran, with the latter seen as a conduit to Turkey, where many Afghans in search of work or looking to get to the European continent have traditionally headed.

IRAN

Despite the official policy of welcoming those crossing the border from Afghanistan fleeing the Taliban—at least on the basis that refugees are welcome to stay in border camps until the situation in their homeland stabilises—Iran’s Shargh newspaper discovered something very different on August 25.

Although the Red Crescent Society said it had prepared six camps along the border, the publication’s reporters discovered nothing of the kind. It appeared that those who entered seeking asylum were being sent back by Iranian border guards after spending a night’s rest.

Meanwhile, a growing underground smuggling operation is under way in Iran, ferrying Afghans with cash to cities including Mashhad, Kerman and Tehran. Peugeot 405 taxis are seen hurtling down main roads from border points where Afghans have managed to slip past official border checkpoints.

Further west along Iran’s border with Turkey, the Turkish government is making relatively fast progress in constructing a large concrete wall.

UN figures suggest Iran already hosts around 0.8mn Afghan refugees but some reports describe up to 3.5mn Afghans unofficially in the country.

As it became clear that the Taliban had completed a lightning takeover of 95% of Afghanistan including Kabul, Rouzbeh Parsi of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs told AFP that Shi’ite Muslim Iran, which shares a more than 900-kilometre (550-mile) border with Afghanistan, appeared keen to achieve peaceful coexistence with the Sunni Muslim Taliban.

"Iran has for some time, pragmatic as always, accepted that the Taliban are not going to disappear and that no outsider will be able to militarily defeat them," he said, adding: "Iran is a country heavily beset by Covid, corruption, and a faltering economy. The ability and willingness to take on more Afghan refugees is probably not great."

Parsi added that Iran's future relationship with the new rulers in Kabul "hinges on the pragmatism of the Taliban", observing that Tehran would pay particular attention to the wellbeing of the mainly Shi’ite, Persian-speaking Hazara minority in Afghanistan.

TURKEY

Might Turkey cut a deal with Europe to, in return for payments from the EU, host millions of Afghan refugees, the way it did six years ago as regards Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war? Even if the Erdogan administration was willing to consider such an arrangement, aware of the revenues and improvement in its relationship with the bloc that it would bring, it might back away given its current record low popularity among Turks, with an election due in 2023, and a lot of opposition among the population to allowing in substantially more refugees. Turkey is after all already hosting more refugees than any other country worldwide.

Officially, there are only around 0.1mn Afghan refugees in Turkey, with the country hosting 3.7mn refugees in all, according to UN figures. But there are “actual figures” in circulation in Turkey that describe a total of 10mn migrants, including 5-6mn Syrians and 1-1.5mn Afghans.

Nationalist violence against migrants is on the rise in Turkey—in early August, after reports that a Syrian refugee had stabbed two Turkish men in a fight, a mob attacked houses, shops and cars owned by Syrians in an Ankara district where a community of Syrian migrants and refugees live—and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on August 19 warned that Turkey will not serve as “Europe’s refugee storehouse”.

He added: "We need to remind our European friends of this fact: Europe, which has become a magnet for millions of people, can't stay outside of the problem by mercilessly closing its borders to protect their citizens' security and welfare."

Prior to Erdogan’s words, over the previous six weeks, hundreds of Afghan refugees that had taken a route through mountains in Iran, had been crossing into Turkey every day.

The Iran-Turkey border is 534 kilometres (332 miles) in length and the government has said that amid the Afghanistan crisis, construction workers have been working flat out to complete a wall along the frontier. However, without massive security all along its length, a wall will not stop all migrants, who are wont to try and try again to overcome such barriers unless they are detained rather than simply turned back.

A Metropoll survey from July showed 67% opposition among Turks to opening borders to Afghan refugees, including more than half of voters from Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP).

UZBEKISTAN

Tashkent was quick to offer the US, Germany and other nations airport and other facilities for the processing of Afghan refugees transiting elsewhere, but there is a lot of pressure from Uzbeks to not allow any significant number of those escaping Afghanistan to settle in Uzbekistan and the government appears intent on ensuring that such a scenario will not happen.

Deputy Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan, Farkhod Arziyev, told the Senate on August 26 that “none of those who enter Uzbekistan in transit will remain in the country”.

On August 20, the Foreign Ministry announced the "voluntary" repatriation of 150 Afghan refugees who, according to the ministry, received security guarantees from the Taliban.

A big fear among Uzbeks is that militant and terrorist extremists could disguise themselves among a flow of refugees and infiltrate the country. A survey of a handful of ordinary Uzbek citizens conducted by bne IntelliNews found that 80% of respondents agreed that Uzbekistan should not accept Afghan refugees due to the terrorist threat.

One of the respondents said: “I have heard that hundreds of them [Afghan refugees] have already crossed the border. I’m aware also that Uzbekistan is so far only accepting wealthy Afghans; some of them have made advance rent payments covering several weeks ahead [for homes] in Termez. Some can already be seen on the streets of Tashkent. I am against this. I don’t want my children to live with this threat.”

Another survey respondent said: “Uzbekistan should accept refugees, maybe some 5,000, or maybe 10,000. But the government has to thoroughly check their identity, so not a single terrorist can remain in the country.”

A large Afghan diaspora, which has built up since the 1980s, has already developed in Uzbekistan, with migrants often working on construction sites.

One Afghan entrepreneur in Uzbekistan raised another concern, telling Euronews. "Half of my family is in Afghanistan, while the other half is here. Half of my business is here, and the other half is in Afghanistan. We have to go back and forth all the time, and I'm a little worried about this. I hope that the Uzbek authorities and the Taliban will reach an understanding and open the border."

Russia, meanwhile, is keeping a wary eye on any reports of refugees flowing into Uzbekistan or other Central Asian countries, again because of the potential for terrorist infiltrators.

Russia President Vladimir Putin said: "Who’s among these refugees, we don't know. There can be thousands or hundreds of thousands, or maybe even millions of them. And we don't have any visa restrictions with our closest allies and neighbours. The border [between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan] is a thousand kilometres. You can take whatever you want, be it a car or a donkey, and ride through the steppe [across the border]. What can we do with that?"

TAJIKISTAN

Apart from Uzbekistan, there are two other Central Asian countries that have a border with Afghanistan, namely Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Tajikistan has been taking in a limited number of refugees from Afghanistan since the Taliban rapidly took over the country. Moreover, Tajikistan said this month that it will notify the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (apart from Tajikistan, the CSTO also includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) through its Coordination Council for the Struggle against Illegal Migration in the event of a worsening of the situation with Afghan refugees amid the Taliban takeover.

Tajikistan said in July that it was ready to shelter up to 100,000 refugees from Afghanistan, but Dushanbe fell quiet when pushed for more details. Also in July, Tajikistan said it carried out 11 flights to repatriate 1,600 Afghans who fled clashes between the Taliban and the Afghan government forces.

Despite the promises of providing shelter, Tajikistan is likely to succumb to pressure by Moscow to keep the number of refugees at a minimum with Russia seeing the presence of Afghan citizens in Central Asia as potentially undermining regional security. Russia’s largest military base abroad is located in Tajikistan.

There are millions of Tajikistanis among Afghanistan’s population of 38mn. While no reliable data on ethnicity exists in Afghanistan, the group Minority Rights said previous estimates have shown Tajikistanis make up around 27% of the country’s population, followed by Uzbeks (9%) and Turkmen (3%). The largest group in the country are the Pashtuns, which is also the title ethnicity of Taliban.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has said Dushanbe will not recognise any goverment declared in Afghanistan that does not include representation of all ethnic groups in the country.

TURKMENISTAN

Tightly controlled autocratic ‘hermit nation’ Turkmenistan is highly unlikely to take in any refugees from Afghanistan. Ashgabat has shown clear willingness to cooperate with the Taliban.

Turkmen authorities have reportedly held talks with the Taliban leadership since the beginning of the Taliban’s takeover offensive. Turkmenistan, mired in a crushing economic crisis, badly needs cooperation from the new power brokers in Kabul to enable it to run the TAPI gas pipeline through to Pakistan and India. It has been quick to accept the reality of ‘Taliban 2.0’.

KAZAKHSTAN

Kazakh officials have repeatedly denied rumours and information circulating on Kazakh social media about Kazakhstan’s intention to take in refugees from Afghanistan.

So far, Kazakhstan has flown in hundreds of Afghan UN staff and Afghans working for associated organisations. The Afghan citizens were relocated to the largest Kazakh city, Almaty, on a temporary basis.

Independent Telegram channels have claimed that Kazakh authorities are planning to establish a refugee camp for 2,000 UN staff from Afghanistan in “southern Kazakhstan”.

During the start of the rapid Taliban offensive, posts on Kazakh social media spread rumours about plans to house as many as 70,000 Afghan refugees in the southern city of Shymkent—the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has officially denied these rumours.

Kazakhstan is unlikely to take in a significant number of refugees as that would risk angering the Kazakh population.

KYRGYZSTAN

Kyrgyzstan has said little about the situation in Afghanistan, but on August 16 it did announce a willingness to allow in 1,200 ethnic-Kyrgyz Afghan refugees. The authorities are unlikely to extend any support for Afghan refugees beyond this level.

In July, 350 ethnic Kyrgyz shepherds from Afghanistan with their families and some 4,000 livestock entered Tajikistan. Despite Kyrgyzstan’s offer to accept these refugees, the Tajik government—which presently has more difficult than usual relations with Kyrgyzstan following a border clash, including military exchanges, in the summer—sent the Kyrgyz shepherds back to Afghanistan.

MONGOLIA

Human rights advocates in Mongolia have since August 20 urged the government to grant asylum to people of the Hazara minority in Afghanistan. Many Mongols hold that the Persian-speaking Hazara, usually the concern of Iran in Afghanistan affairs, are descendants of Mongols. Accounting for 10-20% of Afghanistan's population, they have been heavily oppressed by the Taliban in the past.

 “In this time of need, we as Mongolians need to extend our hand to our Hazara brethren just like we have extended our hand to our southern brothers in China,” said Munkhbayar Chuluundorj, a human rights activist.

Munkhbayar told bne IntelliNews that he has not heard back from the government on the appeal to allow in Hazara refugees, while he had also seen a pushback online against his activism. People critical of the appeal on behalf of the Hazara have, according to Munkhbayar, mainly responded: “Don’t try to bring terrorists into our country!”

The Mongolian constitution guarantees the right to seek asylum; however, the country’s laws on asylum seekers are poorly written and anyone can be deported. Mongolia used to take in refugees from North Korea, but the country began turning away North Korean refugees from its borders in June 2007, ostensibly to improve diplomatic relations with North Korea.

To this day, Ulaanbaatar has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention, complaining that it might jeopardise the country’s national security.

With additional reporting by Daniel Rad in London and Anand Tumurtogoo in Ulaanbaatar,

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