The smell of plov and freshly prepared kulcha bread wafts improbably throughout the stairwell of an anonymous post-Soviet apartment building east of Warsaw.
Places like Minsk Mazowiecki, a mid-sized town some 40 kilometers outside the Polish capital, have in the past couple of years become home to many families from Tajikistan – like that of Muhamadjon Kabirov. Forced to leave their native land because of mounting political repression, thousands of families are piecing together new lives abroad.
While Poles can be wary of outsiders, Kabirov’s family members say they have experienced no hostility. Quite the contrary, their life in Minsk Mazowiecki is peaceful and humdrum, which is more than they could expect back home.
Kabirov and his family are members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, which was banned in 2015 in the wake of what the Tajik government claims was the party’s supposed involvement in an attempted coup. A campaign of intimidation against the party had already been in effect for some time, but the ban signaled open season for arbitrary detentions. As hundreds faced jail time on trumped-up charges, many others opted to flee for the most easily accessible European Union nation – Poland. Some family members have already been granted asylum, but many more are still waiting to finalize their status.
Kabirov’s path to Poland was not quite so direct. Before his arrival at the invitation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to attend a conference, he lived in Russia, where he worked as politics editor for Moscow-based broadcaster Centralnoaziatskoe Televidenie, or CATV. In February 2016, the station’s offices were raided by Russian law enforcement forces and subsequently closed down at Tajikistan’s request.
“When they closed down the office, it was difficult, as we lost all our equipment. They confiscated everything,” said Kabirov.
As soon as he got his Schengen visa and an invitation to go to Poland, he decided to leave. He does not regret his decision. The Kabirov family is among the lucky ones. They have the means to rent their own apartment in a friendly neighborhood close to Warsaw. They attend Polish-language classes and have built up relations with the local civil society organizations. Kabirov plans to set up a group to help Tajiks living in Poland.
Most newcomers – the lucky ones allowed entry to Poland to try and claim asylum – have no choice but to stay in collective accommodation centers, where there is little privacy, or much to do to pass the time.
Such is the case with Jamshed Yorov, a lawyer who incurred the government’s ire by coming to the defense of arrested IRPT members. Yorov’s brother, Buzurgmehr, is serving a 25-year jail sentence handed down for a panoply of spurious charges ranging from fraud to contempt of court. While he was still in Tajikistan, Jamshed Yorov was detained three times on various charges.
“I was told directly: ‘Don’t think that you will be pardoned. We are gathering evidence against you, just wait.’ But then there was action organized by Amnesty International and speeches, meetings, protests and pickets held in my support. They drew the world’s attention to my case,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Yorov is still awaiting a decision in his asylum case.
According to data provided by the Polish Association for Legal Intervention, 882 Tajiks claimed asylum in the country in 2016. The Polish government's office for foreigners has put the number of rejections at 109. It is not immediately possible to determine when applicants first submitted their documents, but it is likely most came in the recent past.
Despite the common incidence of application failures, Tajik opposition supporters have not been deterred from coming to Poland. Currently, with groups of IRPT members in Berlin, Vienna and Warsaw, and two offices in the Middle East, the party is gradually attempting to build itself up from the ashes.
Muhammadsaid Rizoi, a member of IRPT’s supreme council, told EurasiaNet.org there are around 200 active party members now living in Poland notwithstanding the mounting anti-immigrant rhetoric. Against expectations, Poland has proven a friendly sanctuary. “I like Poland. The majority of party members live here now and that’s why I decided to stay,” Rizoi said. “When I saw the country and I saw how its people act, I decided to stay.”
Only recently has Poland come to be seen as a viable destination for would-be Tajik asylum seekers.
“Many activists and party leaders thought that they should go either to Russia or to countries in the Middle East, as there are Muslim communities there in which it would be easier to adapt. They thought these countries would be safe and peaceful. But unfortunately that didn’t work out,” said Kabirov.
In the fall of 2016, Turkey banned demonstrations by Tajik opposition activists on its territory. After that, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon began to call on Ankara to extradite Tajik opposition representatives, whom he referred to as “terrorists.” In October that year, the Istanbul office of Payom.net, a Tajik opposition website, was closed down at the request of Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry.
Party representatives say their top priority now is to get the issue of political repression in Tajikistan on the international agenda and to encourage the EU, and other states, to introduce sanctions targeting top members of the elite. Since IRPT leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, received asylum in the EU in February, the party is now in a better position to lobby for sanctions.
In April, Kabiri visited Poland to take part in the first European meeting of party members. “Tajik authorities are no longer a partner in dialogue,” Kabiri said at the time. “The majority of politicians and people in the West see Tajikistan as a transit zone to Afghanistan, not as an independent country. That’s why Tajik authorities have been so effective in their fight against the party.”
Note: An earlier version of this article included a higher number for asylum applications rejected by the Polish government.
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a freelance journalist covering the post-Soviet space.