Tajikistan ‘rounding up and deporting Afghan refugees’

UN refugee agency urges authorities to end forced deportations as families say they are too scared to leave their homes

The Tajikistan authorities are reportedly rounding up Afghan refugees and forcing them to cross the border back into Afghanistan, despite some having been granted asylum in other countries.

According to reports from Tajikistan’s 10,000-strong Afghan refugee community, people are being picked up off the street and houses raided in a spate of recent round-ups of Afghan families, who have been sheltering in the country since the Taliban seized power in August 2021.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has appealed to the Tajikistan authorities to stop the forced deportations. It is not clear what the motivation or policy is behind them; until a few weeks ago the Tajikistan government was cooperating with the UNHCR to shelter and resettle Afghans fleeing the Taliban authorities.

“We are asking Tajikistan to stop detaining and deporting refugees, an action that clearly puts lives at risk,” said Elizabeth Tan, UNHCR’s director of international protection.

“Forced return of refugees is against the law and runs contrary to the principle of non-refoulement, a cornerstone of international refugee law,” she said, referring to the legal tenet that forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to somewhere they would be at risk of persecution.

While there are no available figures on the number of recent deportations from Tajikistan, the UN documented a case of five Afghans forced back on 23 August. They included “a family comprising three children and their mother, [and] were returned to Afghanistan through the Panji Poyon border checkpoint in southern Tajikistan, despite UNHCR’s interventions to halt the deportations”, the UN agency stated.

Afghans in Tajikistan who spoke to the Guardian say that the numbers being forced back over the land border into Afghanistan is running into the hundreds, with forced deportations increasing over the past fortnight. They said that many Afghan refugees were being sent back without passports or identity documents and left to fend for themselves, with no way of getting to a place of safety.

For nearly a week, no one in Samira’s family has dared to step out of their flat in a small town in northern Tajikistan. Her children have not been to school and they have not felt safe enough to get groceries or medical supplies.

All around them, they say, other members of the Afghan refugee community are being detained and forcibly deported back to their home country without clear reason or justification.

“We are living with a lot of fear that we might be detained by the police and deported at any minute,” said Samira*, a former security official who escaped Afghanistan after repeated attempts on her life.

“We will be arrested by the Taliban the moment we enter Afghanistan. I spent years fighting them, they will seek their revenge.”

“Even those with proper documents and ongoing asylum cases in western countries are being picked from the streets and dropped off at the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan … which is why we stopped going outside,” said Ejaz*, Samira’s husband.

“With one of the families we know, the husband was deported without even being allowed to appeal against the decision or see his wife and kids. The family had a flight scheduled for 12 September to Canada, where they were emigrating. But now the husband is back in Afghanistan, while the wife and two kids are struggling to survive here.”

Afghan women from the ‘group of six’ speaking at the UN headquarters in October 2021, from left to right: Asila Wardak, Fawzia Koofi, Anisa Shaheed and Naheed Farid
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Maryam, a former Afghan media personality who fled to Turkey to escape the Taliban, is frantic with worry for the rest of her family, who are refugees in Tajikistan. They have locked themselves inside their home and are living in terror.

“They told me that it started with Afghans being rounded up from the streets, so they stopped leaving their homes. But then they [authorities] started raiding homes and picked up people from their places of work,” she said. “I am afraid to talk to them on the phone or to check in with friends. Everyone is afraid they will be tracked and deported.”

While Samira and her family are also in the final stages of emigrating to Canada, she is racked with dread over the deportations. Her concern is mainly for her children, who have already experienced immense trauma. “The refugee life has been hard on children. They deserved a better future,” she said.

The Tajikistan authorities have been contacted for comment.

* Names have been changed to protect their identity

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