Central Asia’s Response to Afghan Refugee Crisis

On August 22, 2021, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan created thousands of fearful Afghan refugees desperate to leave the country. However, humanitarian efforts from neighboring countries, particularly in Central Asia, have been lackluster. Some of these countries include Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – post-Soviet countries located north of Afghanistan. 

According to Al Jazeera, these countries have largely failed to have a significant impact on the ongoing Afghan refugee crisis. States in this region fear that an influx of refugees could “undermine domestic security.” These countries’ association of Afghan refugees with Taliban ideological influence resulted in increased military mobilization at their borders. Therefore, despite being signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol (except for Uzbekistan), Central Asia’s underwhelming response could undermine the safety of Afghan refugees.

Turkmenistan borders the north-western region of Afghanistan. The Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) states that the country has “adamantly rejected refugees from Afghanistan” and has instead “rushed military forces to the Afghan border” to deter refugees. This occurred even before the Taliban’s takeover. Today, Turkmenistan remains largely unresponsive to the unfolding refugee issue despite pleas from international human rights organizations. Additionally, reports suggest that this lack of intervention may reflect an effort to appease the Taliban. The FPI states that Turkmenistan’s “friendly posturing toward the Taliban” may be a result of shifting “priorities” aimed at advancing economically favorable “trans-regional projects” that the Taliban have supported. Likewise, Uzbekistan would also financially gain from these projects. 

Uzbekistan borders the northern-most region of Afghanistan, east of Turkmenistan. According to the New York Times, Uzbekistan has participated in “military exercises” at its borders alongside Russian troops and the Tajikistan military. Moreover, government officials state that refugees who “illegally cross[es]” to Uzbekistan will be “suppressed harshly,” revealing an adverse attitude toward accepting displaced Afghans. Yet, analysts speculate that many Afghans have already crossed the country’s borders through the Amu Darya River and by “planes and helicopters.” Despite the country’s stance, Al Jazeera states that Uzbekistan is “acting as a transit country” to transfer refugees from Kabul to Germany, which pledged to “accommodate thousands of [Afghan] refugees,” according to The Local

Tajikistan borders north-eastern Afghanistan and lies west of China. The Foreign Policy Institute and Oxus Society reports that Tajikistan, before the Taliban takeover, “prepared to accept up to 100,000 [Afghan refugees].” So far, it has only acted as a “transit country,” similar to Uzbekistan. In step with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan also sent thousands of troops to train at the Tajik-Afghan border. Foreign Policy reports that Tajikistan holds geographical importance for Russia and China. Russia’s “largest foreign military base” is located in Tajikistan, explaining its increased activity in the area. Similarly, China has also “established a military outpost” near the Tajik-China border. Russia and China’s active presence in Tajikistan indicates their vested interest in assisting Central Asian states in fortifying borders to prevent the flow of Afghan refugees. According to Foreign Policy, this strategy mitigates “conflict spillover” but comes at the expense of refugees’ safety. 

Kyrgyzstan is located above Tajikistan and also lies west of China. Al Jazeera states that Kyrgyzstan has pledged to issue “500 student visas for young Afghans” and has also initially planned to accept “70,000 refugees.” However, this decision met fierce domestic opposition. Consequently, the government has been silent on its pledge ever since. 

Closer analysis of each country’s response provides deeper insight into potential underlying interests: domestic opposition, efforts to maintain good relations with the Taliban for economic gain, and the geopolitical influence of Russia and China. The implementation of the 1951 Refugee Convention has done little to alleviate the plight of Afghan refugees. Although the Convention encourages all signatories – including Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – to aid in refugee efforts, countries can still refrain from accepting refugees to preserve “national security” under Article 9 of the Convention: “…Nothing in this convention….shall prevent a Contracting State…from taking provisional measures which it considers to be essential to [its] national security.”  Consequently, these Central Asian countries can justify their avoidant refugee responses to fit a narrative of strengthening national security. The absence of regional assistance should prompt the United States government to accommodate Afghan refugees. The U.S. in particular has utmost responsibility to do so, due to its “lack of oversight, planning, and communication” regarding military withdrawal, according to the Organization for World Peace. It is critical that the U.S. government, alongside other powerful, resourced governments, assist in efforts to preserve families, guarantee futures, and save lives.