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UNHCR publication for CIS Conference (Displacement in the CIS) - Central Asia on the move

Refugees Magazine, 1 May 1996

Central Asia has seen one intense and extremely destructive civil war in Tajikistan, and two much smaller but nevertheless frightening inter-ethnic conflicts in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Together with economic and environmental factors, fear of actual or potential violence in Central Asia has led to some of the largest movements of people in the CIS countries.

In all, well over 4.2 million people have moved within, from or to the five Central Asian republics since the late 1980s:

  • 700,000 people were displaced during the Tajik civil war, including 60,000 who became refugees in Afghanistan.
  • As many as 100,000 (mainly Meskhetians) fled or migrated as a result of fighting in the Ferghana Valley.
  • At least 250,000 people have been forced to leave ecological disaster areas.
  • 2 million have returned to their ethnic 'homeland' elsewhere in the CIS because of a mixture of economic and ethnic fears.

In addition, Kazakstan has organized the return of some 70,000 Kazaks from Mongolia, Iran (where they had fled as refugees from the war in Afghanistan) and Turkey; and 560,000 ethnic Germans (out of a total 1.1 million in 1989) have left Central Asia for Germany since 1992, with German government assistance. Hundreds of thousands more people have moved between the Central Asian countries, or returned to them from other CIS countries. Extensive internal migration is also taking place, primarily for economic reasons. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, in 1994 alone 116,000 moved from mainly rural areas in the south of the country to the more industrialized north.

Central Asia was the prime recipient of the numerous different ethnic groups that were forcibly relocated from western areas of the former Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s (see Punished Peoples). In addition, millions of Slavs Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others were encouraged by the Soviet state to settle in this important strategic outpost, for reasons of development and control. The result is an astonishing ethnic mosaic. Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan each host more than 100 different ethnic groups or 'nationalities.' A single administrative region that includes the town of Osh, in western Kyrgyzstan, contains no fewer than 83 different nationalities.

All the Central Asian countries have been suffering major economic difficulties. Many Soviet-era industries often largely manned and managed by Slavs have had to scale down or shut down altogether. In some cases, entire towns have lost their jobs. In such situations, a move to Russia, or Ukraine, or Belarus seems to provide the only hope for the future. Environmental disasters such as the shrinking of the Aral Sea and the polluted Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site (both of which had a high proportion of Slavic inhabitants) also act as push factors. Competition over dwindling jobs and resources has already played a significant role in the two smaller ethnic conflicts to hit the region.

The USSR was still in existence when the first two serious outbreaks of violence occurred in the Ferghana Valley, a broad, densely populated, industrialized plain that stretches across the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. In June 1989, Soviet troops had to evacuate 74,000 Meskhetians from Uzbekistan's portion of Ferghana, after ten days of fierce street battles had left 100 dead. Several thousand more Meskhetians and members of other minorities left after the fighting was over. Almost exactly a year later, several hundred people were killed when fighting broke out between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz just across the border in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan.

In May 1992, only nine months after independence, Tajikistan collapsed into a short but brutal civil war that killed at least 20,000 people. As well as causing massive displacement in its own right, the Tajik conflict has played a significant role in other forms of migratory movement. These included the exodus of several minorities not directly involved in the fighting (which was on the whole an inter-Tajik affair), firstly out of fear that they might get involved, and secondly as a result of the dire state of the economy which, more than three years after the main war ended, shows scant sign of improvement.

By the end of 1995, nearly all the 600,000 internally displaced Tajiks, and 43,000 of the 60,000 refugees in Afghanistan, had returned to their homes (the only major successful repatriation to have taken place in a CIS country). UNHCR mounted an intensive monitoring operation in returnee areas and rebuilt 18,000 houses destroyed in the war. IOM and OSCE have also been actively involved inside Tajikistan. Unfortunately, continued fighting in the eastern mountainous part of the country and along the frontier with Afghanistan, as well as a high level of violent crime in the capital, Dushanbe, have helped cripple economic recovery. A significant proportion of the population continues to live on the brink, with frequent shortages of food and an almost total lack of other resources.

The Tajik civil war and the outbreaks of violence in the Ferghana Valley had a major psychological impact throughout Central Asia, heightening the fears of minorities and on a more positive note alerting all the governments in the region to the importance of taking action to soothe ethnic tensions and anxieties before they spiral out of control, fuelling further major destabilizing outflows.

By the beginning of 1996, in the five Central Asian Republics, a total of 1.7 million Russians, 161,000 Ukrainians and 29,000 Belarusians had sold many of their possessions and hauled the rest in huge bundles onto the Moscow or St. Petersburg Express. By 1995, with no new conflicts occurring for three years, and partly reassured by measures taken by the authorities, the numbers leaving had started to drop, and some of those who had left earlier were starting to return. However, the cost of the brain drain from the region has already been immense.

Refugees and IDPs
Tajikistan > Tajikistan600,000
Tajikistan > Afghanistan60,000
Russian Fed. (Chechnya) > Kazakstan6,000
Afghanistan > Uzbekistan8,000
Tajikistan > Kyrgyzstan13,000
Involuntarily relocating persons/repatriants
Tajikistan > Turkmenistan45,000
Tajikistan > Russian Fed300,000
Tajikistan > Kyrgyzstan17,000
Tajikistan > Ukraine30,000
Tajikistan > Uzbekistan30,000
Tajikistan > Belarus10,000
Formerly deported peoples fleeing violence Meskhetians
Uzbekistan > Azerbaijan46,000
Uzbekistan > Russian Fed.25,000+
Returning formerly deported peoples
Uzbekistan > Ukraine (Crimea)164,000+
Uzbekistan > Germany16,000
Kazakstan > Germany480,000
Kyrgyzstan > Germany46,000
Tajikistan > Germany13,000
Kazakstan > Russian Fed.614,000
Kyrgyzstan > Russian Fed.296,000
Uzbekistan > Russian Fed.400,000
Turkmenistan > Russian Fed.100,000+
Mongolia > Kazakstan60,000
CIS countries > Kazakstan70,000
Iran > Kazakstan9,000
Ecological migrants
Aral Sea > Kazakstan30,000
Aral Sea > CIS13,000
Aral Sea > Uzbekistan/CIS50,000+
Semipalatinsk > Kazakstan45,000
Semipalatinsk > CIS116,000
Kyrgyzstan > elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan17,000



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