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Afghanistan: Ethnic Kyrgyz residents in repatriation dilemma

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ISLAMABAD, 20 April (IRIN) - Efforts by the Kyrgyz government to repatriate a group of 1,600 ethnic Kyrgyz living in the war-stricken province of Badakhshan, northeastern Afghanistan, have been placed on hold. Kyrgyz officials told IRIN that there was a lack of funds, but, more importantly, it unclear if this group of Kyrgyz wanted to leave the high altitude plains and be repatriated to unknown lands in Kyrgyzstan.
Salima Ismailova, head of migration in Osh, western Kyrgyzstan, told IRIN that this was a community which had left Kyrgyzstan following the introduction of Soviet collectivisation in the 1920s, and eventually settled in Afghanistan. They had appealed to the Kyrgyz government for help in 1996, when security conditions deteriorated following the Taliban takeover of Kabul. Ismailova said conditions remained extremely harsh. "There is an insufficient food supply, little water or other basic products. There is a high infant mortality, a lack of health care and no government support," she said.

The 230-odd Kyrgyz families eke out a marginal existence, tending their livestock on the high-altitude plains of the Wakhan corridor, a thin stretch of Afghanistan bordered by China, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Although isolated from the fighting, the Kyrgyz community remains adversely affected by the Afghan crisis, prompting calls in Kyrgyzstan for their return home.

Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been increasing interest in ensuring that ethnic Kyrgyz who were forced to migrate since the early 1900s are encouraged to return to Kyrgyzstan. Ismailova said that one of the motives was political: the Kyrgyz government was keen to repatriate these ethnic Kyrgyz communities as this would "help to soothe nationalists and promote the government policy of instilling a national identity". She said the government had made constant efforts to convince the Kyrgyz leader in Afghanistan, Abdrashi Khan, to resettle his community in the Chon-Alai area of Osh District, where the local authorities had made preparations to receive up to 1,600 people.

But the Kyrgyz community in Afghanistan is undecided. Ismailova said in recent months she had sensed that "the mood had changed" among the community. "When Abdrashi Khan was contacted six months ago, he was hesitating. He said the situation [in Badakhshan] was improving and that the community was split as to whether it should move to Kyrgyzstan. Many families were concerned about losing lands in an area they were familiar with [in exchange] for unknown lands," she said. Ismailova said the Kyrgyz government was still awaiting a final decision from Khan, who has remained silent for the last six months.

Ismailova said the community's concerns were not unfounded, as the Kyrgyz government did not have the resources to repatriate the community to Chon-Alai. "The economy in Kyrgyzstan is worsening, and the government was hoping to attract international support for repatriation," she said. Although international organisations have considered providing support in the past, there is little interest in becoming involved if the Kyrgyz community is undecided. Ismailova added that without funds or international support, it was very unlikely that the community would be repatriated in the near future.

The Kyrgyz representative to the UN in Geneva, Omar Sultanov, confirmed that there had been a split in the community. He said that since a young leader had challenged Khan's decision to move to Kyrgyzstan, opinions within the community had polarised.

A UN field visit to the Wakan region last summer suggests that although conditions were difficult for the Kyrgyz there, it had nonetheless adapted to living all year round at an altitude of 3,000 metres. A UN official said they found the Kyrgyz families were "deeply rooted to the surrounding environment". Conditions for trading had also improved after the border with Pakistan was opened a few years ago, he said.

But the community's main concern was whether Kyrgyzstan would be able to accommodate the new arrivals if they were repatriated, the official added. He considered that integration would be extremely difficult if they did eventually move, but provided they could trade livestock and dairy products, then it could work. With high infant mortality and a short life expectancy, the move would not necessarily be of immediate benefit to the adults, but, with improved access to health care and education, it would make a difference for their children, he said.

[ENDS]

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