Tajiks who fled civil war no longer refugees

Thousands of Tajiks who fled the civil war in their country in the 1990s, including those currently living in neighbouring Central Asian republics, are no longer considered refugees by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"The cessation clause for Tajik refugees became effective on 1 July [2006]. However, Tajik refugees who remain in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan will be able to get assistance from UNHCR if they want to repatriate voluntarily," Galima Gubaeva, UNHCR's assistant protection officer, said from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on Monday.

"UNHCR headquarters said in 2005 that the reasons that forced Tajik nationals to flee [their home country] and seek refugee in other countries had ceased to exist because the peace agreement was signed in Tajikistan and the situation in the country had come back to normal... an acknowledgement that there are no refugees from Tajikistan because of the war," Gubaeva explained.

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention stipulates that cessation clauses can be invoked when, due to a change of circumstances in their home country, refugees no longer require international protection. Whenever the conditions that forced refugees to flee their home country no longer exist - in the case of Tajikistan, the civil war ended nine years ago and development work is under way - their refugee status is no longer recognised, experts say.

According to some estimates, more than 300,000 Tajiks fled the civil war that ravaged the country between 1992 and 1997 and claimed the lives of more than 80,000. The war ended with a UN-brokered peace agreement between the secularist government and Islamist opposition.

To date, the number of UNHCR-assisted voluntary returns to Tajikistan is some 54,000 since 1993, with the largest number having come back from Afghanistan - around 40,000. The rest repatriated from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The largest numbers of returnees were from Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, at least 5,500 from each.

"But we do not expect the massive repatriation that we had in the mid-1990s because most of the refugees who wanted to return have already done so, either thanks to UNHCR assistance or on their own. For example, just 40 refugees returned in 2005 and around 60 in 2004," Gubaeva said.

The majority of former Tajik refugees still remaining in Kyrgyzstan are ethnic Kyrgyz. As of 1 June, there were some 2,500 Tajik refugees in Kyrgyzstan, the UNHCR mission in the country said in a statement on Monday. "Those of them who decided to stay in the Kyrgyz Republic have the opportunity to naturalise," the statement read. More than 7,000 Tajik refugees have naturalised in the country since 2002.

As for Turkmenistan, over 10,000 Tajik refugees in that country - mainly ethnic Turkmen who had integrated locally over past years - were granted citizenship in August 2005, a move hailed by the UN refugee agency as a welcome solution.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov signed a decree granting Turkmen citizenship to 13,245 people of ethnic Turkmen origin. Among those granted citizenship were more than 10,000 ethnic-Turkmen Tajiks who fled the civil war in Tajikistan and received refugee status in Turkmenistan. The decree also covered Turkmen Tajiks who arrived in 1998 and 1999.