On September 16, Lord Desai stood up in the British House of Lords and proposed what he acknowledged to be a “utopian” solution to a burgeoning crisis that has challenged EU cohesion: Brussels should work via the United Nations to develop and fund a plan to resettle refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern states in Central Asia.
“There are sparsely populated countries in Central Asia – Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Mongolia and so on. There, [in Central Asia] population density is one-hundredth of the population density in Europe,” Lord Desai said. “I would like the United Nations to arrange a transfer of as many migrants and refugees as possible, with the cooperation of those countries, to settle in those countries.”
Lord Desai cited supposed cultural similarities as a reason why Central Asian states might be receptive to accepting refugees from the Middle East. “These are Muslim countries,” he said, referring to Central Asian states. “They are co-religionists.”
Lord Desai’s proposal betrays a bewildering lack of knowledge about the countries to which he would dispatch those hoping to escape either the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime or radical Islamic terror. Some Central Asian states, particularly Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, are every bit as repressive as Syria. Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, for example, is focused on locking his country down, not opening it up to newcomers.
And although nominally Muslim, Central Asian states have severely restricted freedom of religious expression in recent years. Mongolia, another of the states mentioned by Lord Desai as a potential refugee destination, is predominantly Buddhist.
Economically speaking, none of the states is in position to accept newcomers. Even the region’s most prosperous country, Kazakhstan, is currently grappling with a severe economic downturn.
Not only does Lord Desai display a shaky grasp of present conditions, his proposal shows a lack of understanding about the region’s history of forced migration. Countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan still feel the effects of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s decisions during World War II to deport entire nationalities, including Crimean Tatars, Chechens and Meskhetian Turks, from their traditional homelands to Central Asia’s steppes.
The deported nationalities still experience hardship. As recently as 2010, for example, Meskhetian Turks were targeted in inter-ethnic rioting in Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, many Crimean Tatars managed to return to their homeland in Crimea following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but they have experienced discrimination following Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014.
Lord Desai is a native of India who became a naturalized British citizen. Born in 1940, Meghnad Jagdishchandra Desai obtained a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in the United States and went on to lecture at the London School of Economics. He was made a peer in 1991.