• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

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
Repatriants
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
• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

Internally Displaced People

The internally displaced seek safety in other parts of their country, where they need help.

Related Internet Links

UNHCR is not responsible for the content and availability of external internet sites

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding across Myanmar's Rakhine state, where some 115,000 people are desperately in need of aid after being displaced during two waves of inter-communal violence in June and October 2012. The displaced, most of them ethnic Rohingya, have sought shelter in temporary relief camps and others remain scattered across the state, living under tight security in their destroyed villages. Conditions are harsh: the camps are overcrowded and some lack even the most basic of sanitation facilities while many of the villages are totally destroyed and running low on water. In one village, more than 32 families were living cheek-by-jowl in just two large tents. The children have no access to education and the newborn and elderly are in a very vulnerable position due to a lack of medical facilities. UNHCR is distributing relief supplies and working with the authorities and partners to improve camp conditions, but international assistance is required.

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

During Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war more than 1 million people were uprooted from their homes or forced to flee, often repeatedly. Many found shelter in UNHCR-supported Open Relief Centers, in government welfare centers or with relatives and friends.

In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire accord and began a series of talks aimed at negotiating a lasting peace. By late 2003, more than 300,000 internally displaced persons had returned to their often destroyed towns and villages.

In the midst of these returns, UNHCR provided physical and legal protection to war affected civilians – along with financing a range of special projects to provide new temporary shelter, health and sanitation facilities, various community services, and quick and cheap income generation projects.

Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

Shelter for the Displaced in Yemen

The port city of Aden in southern Yemen has long been a destination for refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants after making the dangerous sea crossing from the Horn of Africa. Since May 2011, Aden also has been providing shelter to tens of thousands of Yemenis fleeing fighting between government forces and armed groups in neighbouring Abyan governorate.

Most of the 157,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from Abyan have found shelter with friends and relatives, but some 20,000 have been staying in dozens of public schools and eight vacant public buildings. Conditions are crowded with several families living together in a single classroom.

Many IDPs expected their displacement would not be for long. They wish to return home, but cannot do so due to the fighting. Moreover, some are fearful of reprisals if they return to areas where many homes were destroyed or severely damaged in bombings.

UNHCR has provided emergency assistance, including blankets, plastic sheeting and wood stoves, to almost 70,000 IDPs from Abyan. Earlier this year, UNHCR rehabilitated two buildings, providing shelter for 2,000 people and allowing 3,000 children, IDPs and locals, to resume schooling in proper classrooms. UNHCR is advocating with the authorities for the conversion of additional public buildings into transitional shelters for the thousands of IDPs still living in schools.

Photographer Pepe Rubio Larrauri travelled to Aden in March 2012 to document the day-to-day lives of the displaced.

Shelter for the Displaced in Yemen