After generations away, Kazakhs come home to an independent country

News Stories, 9 August 2007

© UNHCR/V.Tan
Oralman Kazakh returnees at a festival in Almaty who have returned from Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Iran and China, among other countries.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan, August 9 (UNHCR) Five generations of exile is no laughing matter, but Botagoz Uatkhan could not help giggling as she explained how it happened: "My great-grandfather kidnapped the bride of a rich man in eastern Kazakhstan in the 1870s. Since then, my family has thrived in Mongolia."

The 50-year-old mother-of-three said that as ethnic Kazakhs, her generation never felt like outsiders in Mongolia. They were in government, received high education and held good jobs. But in 1991, they decided to return to a newly independent Kazakhstan after more than 120 years abroad.

"My father and granduncle were Kazakh patriots and yearned for the motherland," said Uatkhan. "When the government of Kazakhstan started encouraging the diaspora to return in 1991, we decided to come back."

Her family is among 600,000 ethnic Kazakhs who have returned to Kazakhstan since independence. The majority of their ancestors had fled Soviet collectivisation in the early twentieth century. Most ended up in neighbouring Soviet republics like Uzbekistan, but others went further and settled in Mongolia, China, Iran, even Turkey.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, under 40 percent of the population of Kazakhstan was ethnic Kazakh (the figure has now risen to just over half). The rest were ethnic Russians only a fraction fewer than Kazakhs and a mix of more than a hundred other minorities. The Kazakh government subsequently encouraged the return of ethnic Kazakhs from abroad by organizing flights and offering attractive benefits such as land and cash grants for these returnees, known locally as 'Oralman.'

Legal benefits were initially slow to follow. "The issue of citizenship was very hard. I only received it after nine years," said Uatkhan. "At the time, there was an agreement that I had to be released from Mongolian citizenship before I could become a citizen of Kazakhstan. But Mongolia was unwilling to let educated people go. I was finally able to renounce my Mongolian citizenship in 1999 and got my Kazakhstan one in 2000."

That danger of being stateless changed dramatically in December 1997 with a law stating that citizenship will be granted to Oralman within six months of making an application. "My husband returned in 2003 from the Czech Republic, and got it in 45 days," said Uatkhan.

"These days, the issues of Oralman and statelessness are not related at all," said Galiya Kusainova, who heads the unit on refugees and international organizations under the Committee on Migration. "Oralman are citizens of their respective countries," she explained. "When an ethnic Kazakh returns to Kazakhstan, he tells us where he wants to go. Every area has its own quota. If he falls within the quota, he applies for Oralman status, receives state assistance, and does not renounce his nationality until he eventually applies for citizenship.

"If he falls outside the quota, he can apply for citizenship and be processed within three months. Once he becomes a citizen, the authorities will inform his previous country to revoke his citizenship there."

She noted that Oralman tend to settle near their former country of residence. Returnees from China and Mongolia remain in the east, while those who have come from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan generally stay in the south, where the climate is similar to the country where they lived for several decades or generations.

State assistance is provided in accordance with each area's quota. This includes a one-time cash grant of about 100,000 tenge ($900) per person; about 50,000 tenge for transport; cash compensation for accommodation; as well as the normal benefits enjoyed by the local population, such as education and health care. When available, land is also sometimes granted.

"Kazakhstan has a population of 15.5 million people, 53 percent of them ethnic Kazakh. There are 4 to 5 million ethnic Kazakhs still abroad, including 1.5 million each in Uzbekistan and China," said Kusainova. "Ethnic migration is still a priority area in our policy. It's a return to the homeland, and a demographic solution with national and security implications."

While many Oralman receive a warm welcome and integrate fairly easily, a relatively small number struggle with housing, employment and language in Kazakhstan. Some have even gone back to countries like Mongolia, where they can face problems re-acquiring their former citizenship.

The tumultuous ebbing and flowing of populations after the disintegration of one state the USSR into 15 has still not entirely subsided as people try to find where they really belong. But Botagoz Uatkhan is satisfied her family made the right decision.

"Other Oralman have found it difficult to adapt to the climate, people, society, language," she said. "But I have no regrets about returning. Back in Mongolia ... we had our own Kazakh theatres, museums, schools. Now we are living and working in Kazakhstan just as we did in Mongolia."

Her new roots are growing deeper all the time: "My youngest child was born in Almaty and I have friends here," she said, with a tone of finality.

By Vivian Tan in Almaty, Kazakhstan