Closed borders around the world due to the outbreak of COVID – 19 have temporarily affected the mobility of people, including both voluntary and forced migration. The precise impact of the pandemic on migration is yet to be assessed, but prior to the pandemic, the forced migration rate has grown rapidly around the world and surpasses voluntary migration in growth percentage. According to the UN, from 2010 to 2017, the average annual growth rate of refugees and asylum seekers exceeded 8%, while between 2010 and 2019 the annual growth rate of other migrants was less than 2%. In 2018 there were 25.9 million refugees in the world, more than half of whom were under 18 years of age. Some 3.5 million more people around the world live in wait of a determination for their asylum request status.
Sadly, Central Asia is no exception of these processes, as military and ethnic-based conflicts, as well as the political strife resulted in a stream of displaced persons and refugees.
In the early nineties, Tajikistan’s civil war forced tens of thousands of Tajiks to flee to neighboring countries—mainly Afghanistan, but also to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Russia. While this was the first exodus from the region in recent history, it was not the last, and the war has not been the only cause for this migration.
The official website of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) collects and provides impressive statistics of refugees by country and year. In countries where the procedures for granting refugee status comply with UN requirements, statistics are counted by an authorized government agency. Prior to 2016 in Central Asia, the UNHCR itself used to directly determine refugee status and kept the records, but since then, the national systems of refugee registration in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan started to function more smoothly, and the states now provide official statistics to the UN.
Fled from independence
The very first asylum request came from a Kazakh national who made the request to Danish authorities in 1992. He was followed by eight citizens from Tajikistan who sought asylum in Sweden that year. In 1993, a Kyrgyz citizen filed an asylum request in Spain, and in 1994 some others from the region fled to the Netherlands, Canada, and Bulgaria. That same year, tens of thousands of Meskhetian Turks, who had previously left Uzbekistan as result of the 1989 pogroms, were recognized as people of concern seeking refuge in Azerbaijan.
In South America in 1995, for the first time, a Kyrgyz citizen sought asylum in Uruguay. In North America that same year, the first Central Asian asylum requests were recorded in the United States: 64 Uzbeks, 17 Kazakhs, 11 Tajiks, 6 Kyrgyz and one Turkmen.
In 1996, nearly 150,000 applications for asylum were filed by in the Russian Federation that came from the citizens of Central Asian countries. Almost 55,000 of them were citizens of Tajikistan.
Today, the Russian Federation is no longer a priority destination for Central Asian asylum seekers. Perhaps this is because many migrant workers can get work permission and simplified citizenship; political refugees do not feel safe there; and more and more people are finding their way to other countries and prefer to stay there.
The number of those who leave Kazakhstan to other countries and apply for asylum is growing annually. At the beginning of the 21st century, more than three thousand Kazakhstanis filed for asylum abroad; in 2018 this number has increased by nearly three times.
It should be clarified that these figures include both asylum seekers (with cases pending) and recognized refugees (and refugee-like situations). The same refugee may be included in the statistics several years in a row until his/her status changes, as he/she may receive other documents (residence permit, citizenship) or may lose refugee status (refusal to renew, returning home, leaving to another country). Also not every asylum request gets approved, as many are believed to be economic migrants.
In 2018, for the first time, South Korea overtook the United States as a top destination for Kazakhs who apply for asylum abroad. The visa-free regime between Kazakhstan and South Korea made the latter the leader of the list of countries where the Kazakhs seek refuge.
Kazakhstan is already a destination country for many migrants from Central Asia as well as other expatriates. In the 1990s and in the beginning of the 21st century, thousands from Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as well as from the Russian Federation were registered as refugees in Kazakhstan. In 2018, 757 people formally requested and some received asylum in Kazakhstan. This number may be larger, because data for some countries is hidden. Neighbors (China, Uzbekistan) and war fronts far abroad (Afghanistan, Syria) are the main sources of current refugees and asylum seekers in Kazakhstan.
In the country’s first years of independence, tens of thousands of Kyrgyzstanis were considered as refugees in the Russian Federation. Due to the unstable socio-political and economic situation, many Russians decided to move to Russia right away.
It is noteworthy that neither of the two revolutions that ended up overthrowing the governments became a special trigger of mass exodus from Kyrgyzstan. Even the Osh events did not cause such an exodus: hundreds of thousands on the UN database from 2010, 2011, 2012 are listed as internally displaced persons, 200,000 of them already returning home in 2010.
As all other Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan had hosted tens of thousands of Tajiks refugees and hundreds refugees from Afghanistan. After the Osh events from 2010 up through 2012, several thousand citizens of Uzbekistan were considered as refugees in Kyrgyzstan. In 2018, some 414 people lived in under the status of refugee or asylum seeker in Kyrgyzstan. More than half of them were from Afghanistan, and around one hundred were from Syria. Also, as of 2018, three dozen Turkish citizens—and two dozen Ukrainians were on this list. This amount may be larger, as data for some countries is hidden.
It should also be noted that Kyrgyzstan currently has few stateless people; most of them received citizenship in 2019, though, there were some 100,000 people without any citizenship in 2005, when they were first recorded. Kyrgyzstan is the first country in the world to grant citizenship to absolutely all stateless persons.
A civil war in Tajikistan caused tens of thousands to flee to neighboring countries—primarily to Afghanistan, but also to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, and Turkmenistan. More than half a million were forced to seek refuge within the country itself.
Years passed, the situation got better, and a majority of refugees returned, especially from Afghanistan. However, many remained in the countries sheltered them, especially in the post-Soviet republics. Refugees quickly returned from Afghanistan, where they had endured harsh and desperate conditions and were in no less danger than at home. Impressive numbers remained in the neighboring republics up to 2005 (data of Tajik refugees in Uzbekistan increased from two-digit to five-digit in 2000). There were around 40,000 Tajik refugees in Uzbekistan and 11,000 refugees in Turkmenistan in 2005. Starting in 2006, data on Tajik refugees in these two republics has no longer been available.
In the end of 2015, the Tajik authorities banned the main opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party. Subsequent repression against members of this and other opposition and Islamist groups resulted in increasing number of refugees from Tajikistan. The year of 2016 saw a 50% rise of refugees in comparison to a year earlier.
How many seek asylum in Tajikistan, and where are the requests originating? Primarily, the requests come from thousands of Afghanistan’s citizens, who cross a long border to try to move further to other countries, such as Canada. In 2018 alone, some 2,964 Afghan citizens were listed as refugees in Tajikistan. There are also refugees from Iraq, Iran, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan—though data on them is hidden for 2018, there were a total of nine of them in 2017.
As of April 2020, there were 7,151 stateless persons in Tajikistan. Perhaps this number is larger in reality: at the beginning of 2020, Tajikistan also pardoned stateless persons, mainly former Soviet citizens who are now able to regulate their status without a fine. It was announced that approximately 20,000 stateless persons will be able to take advantage of this amnesty.
Over the past decade alone, the number of refugees from Turkmenistan has grown rapidly. If the number of refugees and asylum seekers from Turkmenistan in the 2000s was 323 people, in the 2010s this number increased to 804, and in 2018 doubled to 1680 people.
A lot of Turkmen citizens look for a job in Turkey because it is the only visa-free regime with a job destination country, but just a few hundred out of approximately 500,000 migrant workers asked for asylum there. The United States and Germany, too, are other priority destinations for Turkmen refugees. Top three countries, according to asylum applications of citizens of Turkmenistan, for 2018 are Turkey, USA and Germany.
Are there reverse cases? In the early 1990s, Turkmenistan sheltered thousands of refugees from Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as well as hundreds from Azerbaijan. Over the past decade, the number of those wishing to escape to Turkmenistan has significantly fallen, even from Afghanistan, or they simply have not been allowed in.
In 1994, nearly 30,000 Meskhetian Turks who were fled to Azerbaijan after the 1989 pogroms were listed as refugees. By 2001 the number of Meskhetian refugees from Uzbekistan in Azerbaijan was reduced to just 7,500; in 2002, down to 2,500 people, and in 2003 there were only 500. The second wave of mass exodus from Uzbekistan drove people to Russia, where in 1996, nearly 34,000 refugees from Uzbekistan were registered. In 2000, there were less Uzbek refugees in Russia (1520) than in the US (nearly 2,000). In general, the list of countries hosting Uzbek refugees included 60 countries in 2018
Regarding current refugees in Uzbekistan, in 2018, only 13 Afghans and presumably 1 person from Azerbaijan were listed as refugees in Uzbekistan. Around 100,000 stateless persons also live in Uzbekistan, and a new law adopted this March will let almost half of them receive an Uzbek passport.
It is noteworthy that in recent years, only a very small number of refugees have returned back to their home countries in Central Asia. Although Central Asia as a whole seems to be welcoming an increasing number of tourists and other foreign guests, the number of Central Asian citizens leaving their countries for non-economic reasons is alarming.
Main photo: source