Transit to Peace

Although Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, for many Afghan refugees, it is the country of choice when it comes to emigration. Many hope that it will be their first stop on the way to Europe or the USA. Edda Schlager reports

photo: Edda Schlager
Safe but miserable: 18-year-old Ikbaly Ghul Muhammad and his step-mother collecting water in a suburb of Dushanbe

​​ For 18-year-old Ikbaly Ghul Muhammad, getting water is a daily routine. Twice a day, he goes to the Aryk, the open channel in the courtyard, fills two buckets with water and then carries them back upstairs to his home on the third floor of the crumbling Soviet high-rise building. There is no running water in the shabby two-roomed flat in which Ikbaly, his parents and four siblings live.

When Ikbaly carries the buckets up the dirty staircase, he thinks back to his old home in Masar-i-Sharif: "In Afghanistan, we had our own well. Here, we have to drink dirty water, even though it sometimes causes us tummy trouble."

Ikbaly's family moved from Masar-i-Sharif to Wakhdat, a suburb of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, in February of this year. In Afghanistan, criminals murdered Ikbaly's father's first wife and youngest daughter. Even though the murderer was apprehended and sentenced to death, his relatives bought him free. For three years, 45-year-old Muhammad Orif Ghul Muhammad, Ikbaly's father, fought to have the murderer sentenced again. Then he himself received death threats and fled with his second wife and remaining five children to neighbouring Tajikistan.

Restrictive entry requirements

Although Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, for many Afghans, it is the country of choice when it comes to emigration: a safer option than Pakistan, which is rocked by civil unrest and violence, and less restrictive than Iran. What's more, Farsi and the Tajik language are one and the same.

The Nizhniy Pyandzh border-crossing (photo: Edda Schlager)
Sanctuary in one of the poorest countries in the world: In recent years, most of the 4,500 Afghan refugees who wanted to get into Tajikistan crossed the border via Nizhniy Pyandzh, the largest border-crossing between the two countries

​​ This is why, for two years now, increasing numbers of Afghan refugees have been making their way to Tajikistan, especially from northern Afghanistan, where the influence of the Taliban is growing. Approximately 4,500 Afghan refugees were registered in Tajikistan in the first quarter of this year. However, the Tajik authorities have regulated the entry of Afghan refugees with quotas; no more than 1,700 can enter the country per annum.

Abdul Rakhmon Fotekhon came to Tajikistan with his wife and five children from the province of Baghlan. He worked for the UN as an election campaign helper in the Afghan presidential election in August 2009. He was later kidnapped by insurgents but managed to escape after two months. For Abdul Rakhmon, it was clear that he had to get out of Afghanistan.

Breach of international law

In Tajikistan, the family received assistance from the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency. For three months, refugees receive about €70 per person per month; after that, the sum is reduced to approximately €30. Because this is not enough to live on, many Afghan refugees work illegally, according to Ilya Todorovic, the UNHCR's representative in Tajikistan. "Asylum seekers are not allowed to work while they are waiting to be registered; but they do anyway."

UNHCR boss Todorovic is critical of the way the Tajik government is dealing with the Afghans, making it difficult for them to integrate. The refugees, he explains, are obliged to live in the cities to which they are allocated, such as Wakhdat. "If they refuse to do so, they loose their refugee status," says Todorovic. "This is clearly a breach of international law."

The Fotekhon family (photo: Edda Schlager)
Abdul Rakhmon Fotekhon with his wife and five children. Following his work as a UN election helper, he received death threats. The family fled to Tajikistan. They don't want to stay there; they consider Tajikistan a transit country and would like to move on to Europe or America

​​ The residential areas to which the Afghan refugees are allocated have hardly any infrastructure in comparison with the capital, Dushanbe. In winter, there is no power; water is only available on the street and there is no hot water whatsoever.

The Afghan refugees have great difficulty coping with the conditions in which they live in Tajikistan. Because the country is, like Afghanistan, riddled with corruption and there is no work, Ghul Muhammad does not see a future for himself and his family here. "This could result in serious social problems here in Tajikistan too," he says.

This is why Ghul Muhammad wants to leave Tajikistan as soon as possible, preferably to move on to Europe to ensure better educational prospects for his children. The Fotekhons also want to leave: "I understand that life would be difficult in Germany, Italy or Canada, but these are developed countries where we could simply lead a better life. We want a better life for our children. It will surely be easier to find work there."

Desperate refugees

The fact that Afghan refugees consider Tajikistan to be a transit country irritates the Tajiks. Even those who work for the non-governmental organisation RCVC ("Refugee Children & Vulnerable Citizens"), which is commissioned by the UNHCR to look after Afghan asylum seekers, are wary of every refugee.

RCVC employee Parviz Shokhumorov regularly visits the refugee families. He visits about 30 families per month, talks to neighbours, checks whether there are really as many children in the household as indicated, whether no husbands of women who claimed to be widows have appeared, whether the people really need help. He explains that he and his colleagues are often lied to so that the families get more than they are entitled to.

The Ghul Muhammad family (photo: Edda Schlager)
A hard lot: The Ghul Muhammad family fled to Tajikistan after the father's first wife was murdered in Afghanistan

​​ "The refugees think that they can emigrate free of charge with the help of the UNHCR," says Shokhumorov. "They take the help for granted and think that they don't have to work, that the organisation will see them right. But actually doing something to improve their situation is anathema to them."

These are serious allegations. If Shokhumorov does find out that someone is receiving support from relatives or is earning money despite receiving assistance, the support is cancelled. Despite this situation, Ilya Todorovic of the UNHCR understands the Afghans; after all, he says, it is only a matter of €20 or €30 assistance for refugees. Most of them, he says, really rely on all the support they can get.

"These people are desperate; they have experienced dreadful things, have been tortured, their children kidnapped," says Todorovic in defence of the Afghan refugees. "They come here with very little money in the hope of starting a new life. The Tajiks don't have it easy either, that is certain, but life for the refugees is even harder." And, he continues, desperate people always find extreme ways of surviving.

Edda Schlager

© 2010

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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