Afghan Refugees' Life During the Pandemic


The need to flee Taliban and the protracted war in Afghanistan, drive Afghan refugees to Tajikistan – a country in close proximity and a coveted safe place.
According to media, the number of Afghan refugees in Tajikistan started growing in 1996-2001, when the Taliban movement came to power in Afghanistan. Back then, many more Afghan refugees lived in Tajikistan.

By early 2010, more than 2,000 Afghan refugees were relocated to Canada under a special program of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Another several thousand moved to other countries, mainly to Uzbekistan, Germany and Ukraine.
Now, those who come from Afghanistan, transit through Tajikistan to other countries. Most of them head for Canada or Europe searching for a better life. Still, there are those who stay in Tajikistan hoping to return to their homeland when peace is established there.

Today, according to the non-governmental organisation of Afghan refugees "Oriyono", more than 4,500 Afghan refugees live and work in Tajikistan.

However, not all of them have the best opportunities in Tajikistan. One of the biggest disappointments for Afghan refugees is the inability to live in large cities, where there is more work and opportunities to earn money.
According to the Government of the Republic of Tajikistan Resolution No. 325 of 2000, refugees and asylum seekers are not allowed to live in big cities and in the border districts of the country. Today, Afghan refugees live in several districts of Tajikistan, including in the Districts of Republican Subordination (Vahdat, Rudaki, Hissor, and Shakhrinav), Bohtar district in southern Khatlon region and Jabbor Rasulov district in Sughd region.

Only those Afghans who arrived in Tajikistan before April 26, 2000 can live in Dushanbe. No one who arrived after this date is allowed to reside in the capital. These restrictions deprive Afghan refugee families of access to better living conditions, including housing and work. It is difficult even for local residents to find job in places refugees are allowed to live.
Abdulmusavvir Bahoduri told CABAR.asia about how Afghan refugees live in Tajikistan, what difficulties they face during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bahoduri is the Head of the Afghan non-governmental organisation "Oriyono" who came to the Soviet Central Asia as a tourist in the late 1980s after studying history at Kabul University to learn more about distant ancestors.

Abdulmusavvir Bahoduri
My ancestors were Tajiks, natives of Dakhbed village near Samarkand. I went there several times to restore my ancestry. On my way, I travelled to different cities and regions of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which I liked for the local residents' lifestyle. During the trip, I met a woman from Khatlon region of Tajikistan, and we got married in 1994. We have two sons and two daughters, my eldest daughter is married, and my eldest son lives in France.

I migrated to Tajikistan in 1994. We live here for decades, and the locals treat us as their fellow citizens. They help us as best as they can. We have neighbours; we visit each other for weddings and other events. However, we still face many difficulties. Our citizens suffered the most during the outbreak of the pandemic.
Abdulmusavvir Bahoduri, the Head of the "Oriyono" NGO.
Coronavirus and Problems Caused by It
After granting refugee status, the Tajik government does not provide Afghan refugees with the benefits that country's citizens receive. This is understandable. Tajikistan is one of the poorest Central Asian countries and depends on labour migrants' remittances. Nevertheless, the state provides certain benefits to the vulnerable segments of citizens. The Afghans are left without any assistance, except for that provided by their own embassy and sponsors from their diaspora or international organisations.
The cost of food and ritual services increased during the pandemic.
Abdulmusavvir Bahoduri
the Head of the "Oriyono" NGO
19 Afghan refugees died from the coronavirus, including people over 55 years old with diabetes, heart and lung disease. Before the coronavirus, the burial of a deceased cost 200 somoni (about $20), 150 somoni (about $15) were paid to the gravedigger, and another 50 somoni ($5) – to mullah who performed the funeral. During the coronavirus period, we could not find a gravedigger even for 1000 somoni (about $100). Mullah also did not attend the funerals.
Later, we hired a gravedigger for 700-1000 somoni ($70-$100) per grave. We had to agree with this price, since we had to know where and whose graves are located. During the coronavirus outbreak, when many people died from this disease, we did not know who and where was buried. There was a case when a person died from coronavirus; his son was in Canada. He called me and said, "Mr. Bahoduri, I will come to Tajikistan tomorrow and hold you accountable for finding my father's grave". After that case, we agreed with the price that gravedigger requested.

- Abdulmusavvir Bahoduri
Coronavirus Made Refugees Unemployed
The unemployment problem remains acute in the country even for the local residents. The coronavirus aggravated this problem even more.

«This is big problem for the Tajik people, but even bigger for the refugees. Many of them, who worked as plumbers, cooks, tailors, mechanics, drivers and construction workers, lost their jobs and source of income.

For example, Afghan construction companies operating in Tajikistan asked us to allocate them workers in previous years. We have employed up to 200 people in these companies. This year, due to the coronavirus, we employed only five people. There were no vacant positions this year.

Afghan refugees live very modestly because they do not have savings and food. They have to pay the rent. Some of our migrants make their living by the support from the relatives in Canada, USA, Germany and other countries. Currently, such support is not available because these countries introduced quarantine, and the relatives cannot send money.»

- Abdulmusavvir Bahoduri

Return to Homeland
According to Bahoduri, 17 Afghan refugee families returned home this year, a total of 254 people. The reasons for it were different. Some were denied considering their resettlement to other countries. Others had visas to Canada, but were unable to leave due to the coronavirus. The border was opened for 48 hours two days before the Muslim holiday Ramadan and the day before Eid al-Adha by Presidential Decree, and these people returned to Afghanistan. 180 of them were students on vacation, and the dormitory was closed during this period. «There were the cases of Afghan refugees' deportation due to the incorrectly registered residence permit. However, in 2019-2020, there were no such cases. Of course, not everyone wants to return to unquiet Afghanistan, but some just cannot withstand the difficulties abroad. Afghanistan is still their homeland; their relatives, parents, families live there, and the life can be arranged by Allah's will,» - says the Head of the non-governmental organisation of Afghan refugees in Tajikistan "Oriyono".

Safe in Tajikistan
« We feel safe in Tajikistan. The programs of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Ministry of Labour, Migration and Employment of Population of Tajikistan provide the training for women in confectionery and tailoring; for men – courses in plumbing repair, mechanical engineering, etc. After training, they receive certificates valid in 180 countries around the world.

Most of the refugees who fled to Tajikistan rent out their houses in Afghanistan and receive money for living here.

Compared to Iran and Pakistan, education and healthcare spheres are very good for refugees here. We consider this place as our home, our children study here.

There are many professionals among the refugees. I live in Vahdat and most of our neighbours are Afghan refugees. Their children are educated, they even conduct English language courses for Tajik children. Men carry out car repairs at home or even own auto repair shops.

Afghan refugees also work at the Vahdat Central Hospital and provide daily healthcare to Tajik citizens. Also, our women work in beauty salons, decorate weddings, sew beautiful clothes,» - says Abdulmusavvir.
According to the local residents, Afghan women are more active than Tajik. They are more organised and their husbands do not forbid them to work, unlike Tajik men, who restrict their wives and forbid them to leave their homes without permission.
Non-Governmental Organisations Assistance
As the Afghan refugees from Vahdat and Jabbor Rasulov district told CABAR.asia, mainly the Refugees, Children and Vulnerable Citizens Public Organisation (RCVC) provides them with food and financial assistance.
The Refugees, Children and Vulnerable Citizens Public Organisation helps us and provides financial support. They also help our children with books and other school supplies.
Anonymously told an Afghan woman from Jabbor Rasulov district.
According to Shahlo Kurbanova, RCVC representative in Sughd region, the government does not provide financial or other assistance to Afghan refugees, but does not charge them for books or repairs, etc.

Shahlo Kurbanova
RCVC representative
Every year before the school starts, I address the authorities requesting assistance for certain families. Of course, they also support our requests. On behalf of the organisation, we helped Afghan refugees twice during the coronavirus. Once, we provided financial assistance, and another time, we distributed flour, sugar and butter. We can help them based on their requests. We can help even with purchasing medicines for those who suffer from chronic diseases.
Shahlo Kurbanova
In CABAR.asia interview, Abdulmusavvir Bahoduri said that the organisation he heads also assisted his fellow citizens during the pandemic.

« During the pandemic, 1,243 families received assistance: we distributed food, including rice, butter, flour, and antiviral medicines. In general, we tried to help all refugees who needed it due to the coronavirus. In cooperation with local authorities, we strive to help refugees to become full members of society; we help with registration, employment and housing, and hold cultural events. In addition, we provide financial assistance for treatment and medicines purchase sometimes. Preference is given to families without a provider or disabled people: they can get refund of their expenses after presenting a receipt,» - said Bahoduri.
Tajik Citizenship is the Biggest Dream
According to Bahoduri, 14 Afghans received Tajik passports by 1998. All of them graduated the republic's universities during the Soviet period. Since then, not a single Afghan has received Tajik citizenship. Although, according to the Article 14 of the Law on Citizenship of the Republic of Tajikistan, foreigners or stateless persons above the age of 18 have the right to apply for a Tajik citizenship.
«Many Afghan refugees found their home in Tajikistan and want to stay here, but the absence of citizenship or at least a residence permit deprives them of the rights that local residents have
« 394 people applied for Tajik citizenship, including myself, and all of us are still waiting for reply. These Afghan citizens living in Tajikistan have a residence permit, which is valid for five years. The rest received the refugee certificates or some other status.

If everything will proceed according to the law, I must be the first to receive a Tajik passport, since my wife is a citizen of the Republic of Tajikistan, we have four children, we have a permanent place of residence, and I have never violated the law and had no criminal record.

I hope that we will receive citizenship of Tajikistan. Many Afghans want this. Finally, we have a lot in common in history, culture, language, and traditions. Many Afghan refugees found their home in Tajikistan and want to stay here, but the absence of citizenship or at least a residence permit deprives them of the rights that local residents have,» - sadly states Bahoduri.