Most Afghans seeking refuge in Turkmenistan fled there in the early 1990s while the Taliban, were fighting a series of battles for control of the north of the country, thereby displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Others, like Rana, with links to the Najibullah regime, arrived earlier.
Although between 400 and 500 Afghans have taken the plunge and returned, like many of the 1,100 Afghan refugees left in Turkmenistan, Rana has no real desire to go back home, uncertain that there will be any chance of a job or education for her two children. "Nothing has really got better there; OK there's no more war, but things are better for us here," she told IRIN. Around 800 Afghan refugees in Turkmenistan are ethnic Turkmen and have become so well integrated that most have no plans to go back.
Due to its comparative wealth and proximity to northern Afghanistan, Turkmenistan presented itself as an attractive destination to many Afghans living in the troubled north. Even during the Taliban era, Ashgabat maintained a diplomatic mission in Kabul and also a small consular office in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, facilities which enabled Afghans to obtain visas to enter Turkmenistan.
According to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ashgabat, the Turkmen government has been facilitating its work and responding positively to the plight of refugees, including about 12,000 Tajiks from Tajikistan still living in the country. "The government has been extremely good and have largely fulfilled their international humanitarian obligations to refugees here. Refugees have access to jobs, education and health care," Ruven Mendikdiwela, the UNHCR chief of mission in Turkmenistan, told IRIN.
She said that although Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran were being encouraged to go home, Ashgabat was persevering in its hospitable attitude to those on its territory. Not only that, Mendikdiwela noted, but Afghans settling in rural parts of the country had been allocated land to build on and cultivate, thereby affording them sustainable livelihoods.
Afghans living in Turkmen cities, however, have to fend for themselves, but most seem to do well enough. "In Pakistan they lock up Afghans, in Iran all we do are menial jobs, for now I'm happy here," Zakherah Mohammad Zarif, an Afghan refugee from Faryab Province now working as a taxi driver, told IRIN.
Despite the fact that Afghan refugees in Turkmenistan are relatively well off - the country is safe and most are in some kind of employment with children in school - many see no future for themselves in the country.
Mohammad Da'ud, who has been living in Turkmenabad ever since 1998 when he fled fighting between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban near Mazar-e Sharif, makes ends meet by running a hardware shop from an old container in the city's bazaar. "There's no way back for me. Going home is not a possibility, even though options here are not that many," he told IRIN. His main ambition now is to learn English and obtain the right to live in a third county like the UK or Canada.
Falling living and educational standards in Turkmenistan in recent years have stimulated calls for third-country resettlement from Afghans in Turkmenistan. "Employment opportunities are limited here, so this has an impact on refugees, who have the same access to the labour market as locals," Mendikdewela said.
Some Afghans told IRIN that they had been victims of government policy favouring Turkmens above foreigners in employment and access to resources, but UNHCR was unable to confirm this. "The country is not poor, but ordinary people here are finding life harder and harder, and refugees are always at the bottom in society," Da'ud said, explaining and that that was why he wanted to move to a Western country. All the refugees interviewed by IRIN said they wanted more support from UNHCR in assisting them to move out of Turkmenistan to wealthier countries.
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