Humanitarian aid experts are grappling to formulate a migration-management system to cope with the potential wave of Afghan refugees seeking to escape the expected US onslaught against the Taliban. An effective strategy that succeeds in keeping human suffering to a minimum will require Central Asian states to alter their existing policies on accepting refugees, observers say.
At present, most Central Asian states, in particular Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are reluctant to admit refugees. Turkmenistan has expressed a willingness to work with international agencies, but the country's autocratic leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, has proven to be a very unpredictable partner.
An Afghan attempting to flee to Tajikistan or Uzbekistan today would encounter great difficulty in gaining entry. Officials say their closed-border policies are based on a fear that a large influx of refugees could overwhelm shaky social and economic institutions, fueling instability in their own countries.
Western migration experts agree that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan would face daunting challenges to accommodate large numbers of Afghans. But, they suggest, there are several ways to reduce the chances that a refugee crisis could cause regional instability. Most important is the need to closely coordinate an emergency response among US military planners, Central Asian officials and international humanitarian aid organizations.
A solid migration framework could be beneficial for all sides. It could facilitate the looming US military offensive against the Taliban, suggest several American observers, speaking on condition of anonymity. The US experience in Kosovo and Somalia has taught military strategists that soldiers and humanitarian workers undermine each other unless each group understands its role in a well-defined plan.
At the same time, there are significant incentives for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to cooperate. Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbek President Islam Karimov, have been assailed in recent years by the West for a wide variety of human rights violations. By appearing more compassionate and welcoming towards Afghans, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan could burnish their images, and enhance their leverage in securing humanitarian and developmental aid.
Close cooperation could additionally bolster migration prevention efforts. Gerald Martone, director of emergency response for the International Rescue Committee, says that misinformation leads people who might otherwise stay put to flee. He speculates that many Afghans are already fleeing their villages because of an unwarranted fear the United States will employ Soviet-style carpet-bombing tactics. This type of campaign is unlikely, because the US strategists are aware of the potential public relations disaster that would occur if the offensive causes large civilian casualties. By working with relief agencies to disseminate reliable information to Afghans and ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan, Central Asian republics could blunt the potential for instability.
Martone says that discouraging migration could prove a more effective humanitarian strategy than opening borders. Mortality rates increase by 30 times among migrant populations, he says, because children pick up diseases from adults with immunities, and because poor hygiene encourages the spread of other diseases. The toll inflicted by disease could easily be multiplied in Tajikistan, which is already struggling to overcome a severe drought and other public health threats. The United Nations announced on September 25 that over 1 million people in Tajikistan were in desperate need of 90,000 tons of food aid.
If Central Asian states end up admitting Afghans, strict entry procedures should be created to reduce the chances for the proliferation of upheaval. An American relief expert suggested that Russian troops who patrol Tajikistan's border could be used to screen refugees, with the aim of preventing the infiltration of militants into Central Asia. Border guards could search those entering the country for guns and communications equipment, or submit them to an interview process. "If you can determine that people are seeking safe refuge from war, that's almost a screen right there," says this expert.
Regardless of what policies are adopted, relief efforts will face mammoth obstacles. The Taliban block aid initiatives in parts of northern Afghanistan, says Hiram Ruiz, a senior policy analyst with Immigration and Refugee Services of America. The poor state of the economic infrastructure in Central Asia, including patchwork road and rail networks, also creates a large obstacle to relief operations. Among people that aid workers could reach via Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, says Ruiz, many "only have life supplies to last a matter of weeks."
Alec Appelbaum is a contributing editor to EurasiaNet.