Despite intense media attention on the number of Afghan living in Pakistan and Iran - the two countries hosting the largest number of Afghan refugees today - little is known about those living in Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous state. While few in number, they too face an uncertain future in their quest to return home.
"Their life is certainly not the best," Abdul Karim Gul, chief of mission for the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told IRIN from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. "They have very limited status here. Aside from some very limited material and social assistance provided by UNHCR, including medical assistance, they have no benefits here."
The refugee agency provides the group with some vocational training, including carpet weaving, but legally Afghans cannot sell their products or work in Uzbekistan.
According to UNHCR, there are between 6,000 to 7,000 Afghans in Uzbekistan today, of whom about 3,500 are registered by UNHCR, but fewer than 2,800 of those registered are recognised as refugees under the agency's mandate.
"About 2,760 persons have been recognised by UNHCR as refugees," Gul said, noting that the remaining Afghans, representing all the country's various ethnic groups, but mainly Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks, live in Tashkent or near the southern border city of Termez, where UNHCR also maintains a presence.
Most Afghans living in Uzbekistan arrived following the collapse of the Najibullah regime in 1992 or during the Taliban era. "Some of the claims made by Afghans living in the country are based on the persecution they faced under the Taliban," Gul said, adding, however, that most of the Afghans in the country had not approached his office, making it difficult to determine whether or not they could be given refugee status.
In this context, the UN official observed that Uzbekistan lacked both refugee legislation and a refugee determination procedure, and had yet to accede to any of the international instruments on refugees, such as the UN Convention of 1951 or the protocol of 1967. This, he said, impacted seriously on the refugees, in that their stay in the country was, strictly speaking, illegal. As a result, much of the responsibility for the refugees had devolved on UNHCR, he added.
However, in spite of the absence of a framework to govern their status, this did not mean that the country bore no obligations towards refugees, he asserted, noting that the other international human rights conventions the government had ratified, namely the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the UN Convention against Torture, also contained provisions on refugees and refugee protection.
Currently, UNHCR relies on a "gentlemen's agreement" with the government to the effect that the presence of refugees in the country who are recognised as such under the agency's mandate will be tolerated and that they will not be arrested or deported. "Recently, we have been observing an increased level of cooperation with the government. We genuinely appreciate the 'gentlemen's agreement' we share with them, thereby respecting the rights of refugees under the UNHCR mandate," said Gul.
While much of the world's attention had focused on repatriation efforts now being made in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, from which countries well over two million Afghans had gone home, an albeit much smaller number of Afghan refugees in Uzbekistan were increasingly doing the same. "The pace of return is not very high, however it is on the increase," he explained.
Since the start of voluntary repatriation efforts in the spring of 2002, some 150 Afghans had gone home. However, "since the beginning of this year, 53 have returned home from Uzbekistan", he explained, noting that this represented an increase over the number returning during the same period last year. "This may indicate that the process is really gaining momentum," Gul said, adding that the average of Afghan refugees being repatriated or resettling to third countries from Uzbekistan had been about 15 percent of the total a year.
"We aren't just repatriating those that have been recognised by UNHCR as mandated refugees, but also those who have had their status rejected or haven't been assessed," he added. UNHCR Uzbekistan provides transport, as well as a small monetary grant to facilitate all returnees' journeys home. Once there, UNHCR Afghanistan takes care of them. "It's a limited amount of money on this side of the border. Once they cross the border, in principle they get the same assistance provided to those returning from Pakistan and Iran," Gul said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.
We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant.
But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced.
You can support our journalism from just $5 a month, and every contribution will go towards our mission.