Amid the US-led anti-terrorism campaign, Central Asian states are taking swift action to restrict population movements and crack down on illegal migrants. At the same time, the prospect of prolonged tension in the region is expected to increase the emigration pace of Russian-speakers in the region.
Central Asian authorities say strict controls on cross-border movement within the region are necessary to prevent possible terrorist-related activity, including drug trafficking and arms smuggling. However, human rights monitors report an increase in the number of rights abuses connected with the crackdown. They say the dual trends of tightening border controls and cracking down on illegal migration were already evident before the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Regional governments have dealt with illegal migrants with particular harshness. For example, Kyrgyzstan in late September deported 300 undocumented foreigners, mostly Tajiks and Afghans. Likewise, Kazakhstan has expelled over 1,000 Tajik and Kyrgyz illegal migrants since September 11. Many of the Kyrgyz deportees were traders operating without permission in Kazakhstan.
According to the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, many deportees did not have access to due process of Kazakhstani law. The expulsions "have already resulted in interstate friction" among Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, according to the Kazakhstan Today website.
Concurrent with Kazakhstan's deportation of Kyrgyz and Tajiks, the government has welcomed ethnic Kazakh newcomers from other states in the region, including Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. In recent weeks, hundreds of ethnic Kazakhs have left Uzbekistan and resettled in the central Karaganda Region. Meanwhile, in a September 24 speech, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev expressed a willingness to accept ethnic Kazakh refugees from Afghanistan.
There are tens of thousands of Kazakhs in Afghanistan. Finance Minister Mazhit Yesenbayev said in September that the Kazakhstani government had allocated 4.4 billion tenge (roughly $27 million) to promote the resettlement of ethnic Kazakhs in Afghanistan.
The Kazakhstani government has for years promoted the return of ethnic Kazakhs. Thousands of Kazakhs from countries as far away as Mongolia and Syria have returned to Kazakhstan since 1991. Officials now say they are scrapping immigration quotas for ethnic Kazakhs. However, they add that the immigration pace is limited by funding constraints.
Officials are particularly eager to resettle returning Kazakhs in the country's northern regions, which historically have had high concentration of Slavic, mainly Russian, residents. In recent years, the government has promoted "Kazakhization" policies that are perceived by many Russian-speakers as biased against them. For example, the government mandated in 2000 that all official business be conducted in Kazakh. While Russian is still widely used, it does not enjoy formal legal protection in Kazakhstan.
Perceived discrimination and a lack of economic opportunity have driven Russian-speaker emigration from Kazakhstan. Since 1991, up to 2 million Russian-speakers have left Kazakhstan, according to some estimates. A similar trend of Russian-speaker emigration is evident in Kyrgyzstan.
Russia is the primary destination for Russian-speaking émigrés. Many observers believe the uncertain atmosphere connected with the anti-terrorism campaign will cause the emigration pace to rise. The loss of Russian-speakers, many of whom are skilled workers and professionals, could potentially create medium- and long-term economic problems for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, including possible labor shortages in key sectors.
Meanwhile, the anti-terrorism campaign has stirred concern about a refugee crisis in Central Asia. Some regional officials, especially those in Tajikistan, fear that an influx of Afghans could overwhelm their ability to accommodate newcomers, sparking instability in their respective countries. Those concerns are driving Afghanistan's northern neighbors Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to focus resources on refugee prevention projects.
UN officials are looking to Kazakhstan to serve as a hub for coordinating humanitarian aid efforts, according to a Kazakhstani television report October 23. UN agencies are preparing to provide emergency relief to up to 360,000 Afghans displaced by fighting.
Yaroslav Razumov is a freelance journalist based in Kazakhstan.