Dispatch from Vahdat In Tajikistan, Afghan refugees dream of starting fresh in Canada
Story by Judith Robert for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.
As U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban swept into Kabul in August 2021, the Canadian government promised to take in at least 40,000 Afghan refugees. Ottawa now says it’s on course to reach this target by late 2023, having resettled more than 30,000 vulnerable Afghans so far. But thousands of others who managed to flee Afghanistan to neighboring countries, like Tajikistan, remain stuck in bureaucratic limbo, wrestling with local corruption and red tape as they wait for Canada to process their paperwork. In a dispatch from Vahdat, journalist Judith Robert reports on Tajikistan’s response to the latest iteration of Afghanistan’s decades-long displacement crisis and meets the Afghan refugees still waiting to realize their Canadian dream.
This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
Every evening, in Vahdat’s main square, a small Afghanistan is reborn: older refugees meet up and exchange the latest news. The sound of Dari reverberates through the air.
Located about 30 minutes from Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, Vahdat is home to several thousand Afghan refugees. Through different waves of displacement, they have brought their families here, setting up restaurants and fast-food businesses, educational centers, beauty salons, and shops.
Afghans have sought refuge in neighboring countries for more than 40 years, in what the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) describes as one of the largest and most protracted displacement crises in modern history. While the vast majority of displaced Afghans live in Iran and Pakistan, Tajikistan is the largest host country in Central Asia (the country even took in Afghan refugees during its civil war in the 1990s).
When the Taliban moved to retake Afghanistan amid the U.S. withdrawal in the summer of 2021, Tajikistan was the only neighboring country to open its borders to fleeing Afghans. More than 9,900 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers were living in Tajikistan as of February 2023, according to UNHCR data shared with The Beet. However, the majority arrived before the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, after which Dushanbe stopped issuing visas through its embassy in Kabul.
Denied the right to settle in Tajikistan’s major cities since 2000, displaced Afghans have formed communities in small towns on the outskirts of Dushanbe, such as Rudaki, Hisor, and especially Vahdat, where 77 percent of them live.
Although the city seems peaceful on the surface, the Afghans of Vahdat face many difficulties here. For the most part, obstacles stem from the same pervasive corruption that affects everyone in Tajikistan. As a result, many refugees see the country as nothing more than a transit zone on their way to Canada.
‘I’m grateful, but I don’t feel welcomed’
Mohammad used to work for an Afghan media outlet. Anticipating that the Taliban would retake control of Afghanistan in 2021, he managed to apply for visas in time to flee to Tajikistan with his family.
For security reasons, the names of all the Afghan refugees quoted in this story have been changed.
“Let me be clear on this: I’m grateful to the Tajik state for taking us in,” he tells The Beet, “but I don't feel welcomed. And that’s normal. Because of us, the rents have increased, and there’s a fear that we will take people’s jobs, which are already lacking here.”
A stroll down the main streets of Vahdat can give that impression. Some of the stores and services in the city center are run by Afghans, while many unemployed Tajiks have to go to Russia to find work. As for housing, the presence of refugees increases both demand and prices. But the main source of friction is that landlords often prefer Afghan tenants, whom they can charge much higher rents because as refugees they have nowhere else to go.
Indeed, there are many situations in which Afghans are forced to pay more, often in the form of bribes and always unofficially. This problem arises as soon as they arrive: although the process for obtaining a refugee card officially costs less than $40, some Interior Ministry officials demand bribes of up to $3,000, Afghans told Eurasianet.
This happens when it comes to paying taxes, too. “This is the tax office, a traumatic place for Afghans,” says Mohammad, pointing at an official building in the center of Vahdat. “Every two months, I go there to pay my taxes, and every two months, they ask me to pay for six months. There’s nothing we can do about it.” The same thing happens when it comes time to pay for water and electricity, he adds.
Officially, asylum-seeker status guarantees access to emergency healthcare, primary and secondary education, and employment. The reality is more complicated due to poverty, corruption, and residency restrictions, however.
Baqir, who runs a restaurant in one of Dushanbe’s bazaars, arrived in Tajikistan in the mid-1990s, when refugees were still allowed to settle in big cities. He says he has never had any complaints about health services and has been able to access public hospitals. You may have to slip a few bills to the doctors or go to a private clinic to get proper treatment, he says, but this is also the case for Tajik citizens. His children, Baqir adds, were able to study and go abroad; one of them even became a doctor.
Learning and leaving
Officially, there is only one Afghan school in Tajikistan, which can be found in Dushanbe and where classes are taught in Dari. Although the school fees cost less than $14 per child a month, not everyone can afford it, given the additional cost of daily transportation and the fact that families often have multiple children.
For this reason, many of Vahdat’s Afghan children attend one of the three learning centers in town, founded by refugees. As of December 2022, these centers were educating more than 700 Afghans, as well as a few locals. They offer language courses (usually Dari, English, Tajik, and Russian), music classes, computer courses, and professional training. Some children attend classes there five days a week.
“If we register the center as a school and no longer as a private learning center, we won’t be able to afford the taxes,” explains Farzaneh, who founded one of the learning centers together with a local Tajik. Farzaneh says she has two main goals: to give children access to education in their mother tongue and to help women access employment opportunities in Tajikistan and abroad by training them for jobs they can do anywhere.
Some international programs support the center from afar. The American Embassy has provided training for first-time teachers. But material and financial support is close to nonexistent, and the fees families pay are just enough to cover the rent and the teachers’ salaries, Farzaneh says.
Corruption on the part of the authorities is an issue here, too. “Sometimes an official comes and asks for money. He may say that we don’t meet safety standards, that we don't have a fire extinguisher, that this door should be closed or open. They ask us to pay fines for the smallest things,” Farzaneh tells The Beet.
According to the U.N.’s most recent refugee response plan, $1.8 million should be earmarked to support education for refugees and host communities in Tajikistan. Refugees can access public schools free of charge, but many are overenrolled due to the recent influx of Afghan students — especially in Vahdat and Rudaki. (According to the UNHCR, 817 refugees were attending Tajik public schools at the end of 2022.) Mulugeta Zewdie Mamo, the UNHCR’s representative in Tajikistan, says the funds are intended to help the government ease the burden on existing schools. “The support benefits the entire population to ensure the socio-economic inclusion of Afghans and enhance peaceful coexistence with the host community,” he explains.
Meanwhile, some refugees claim that they are unable to enroll their children in public schools due to a lack of official documents. “In a war situation, when people run for their lives, in most cases, they have no time to think about personal belongings, including documentation,” the representative tells The Beet. “Lack of translations and equivalences is also a challenge for those who managed to bring education-related documentation, which UNHCR is trying to address.”
At the same time, many Afghans are reluctant to send their children to public schools, mainly because they don’t plan to stay in Tajikistan for long and don’t see the benefit of their children studying in Tajik. While some hope to go to Canada, others plan to return to Afghanistan in the near future. Hopefully, they say, learning English in a private center is the best bet.
The ‘Afghan tax’
Back in Dushanbe, The Beet’s correspondent visits a bazaar where more than 40 Afghan merchants run their own shops. Many of them, like Baqir, have lived in Tajikistan for at least 20 years, if not 30.
As it turns out, opening a business is often easier than finding a job. Some employers ask for bribes in exchange for hiring Afghans or stateless people, and educated refugees have very little access to jobs that match their qualifications. But the overarching problem is the country’s weak labor market, which has long pushed Tajikistan’s citizens to seek work abroad. More than 986,000 Tajik nationals went to work in Russia just last year; the remittances they and other labor migrants sent home accounted for 34 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP.
According to Baqir, the situation for Afghans in Tajikistan has improved significantly over the years. Before he opened his restaurant a few years ago, he had started several other businesses, including a grocery store, but was forced to close each time. On more than one occasion, he was beaten in the street and in his own workplace; his attackers were never prosecuted. This no longer happens, Baqir says, not only because Tajikistan has become safer, but also thanks to what he calls the “Afghan tax.”
Every month, an official collects a small portion of the Afghan businessmen’s income and guarantees them protection, in the name of the bazaar owner (“a high-ranking person,” the merchants hint). Baqir is satisfied with this system: it keeps customers from leaving without paying.
Sanjar, who left Afghanistan some 30 years ago, runs a grocery store in the same bazaar. He says that opening a business isn’t particularly difficult for Afghans, but keeping it afloat is more complicated because of the incessant demands for bribes. In addition to the “Afghan tax,” Sanjar says he regularly has to pay money to officials, who could otherwise shut him down on various grounds. He also says he pays more than double the official amount in taxes.
While Afghans are often forced to pay a premium, the systems of corruption the merchants described are endemic and affect all segments of the population. In Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index, which rates perceived levels of public sector corruption on a scale of 0 (“highly corrupt”) to 100 (“very clean”), Tajikistan scored just 24 points.
The Afghan merchants in the bazaar were reluctant to talk to The Beet’s reporter. Of the five she approached, only two agreed to speak on condition of anonymity (the others recommended she try someone else, or even pointed her towards merchants who weren’t Afghan but Tajik).
Their misgivings are easy to understand. The Afghan merchants know they are under close surveillance and, as a precaution, they avoid meeting publicly so as not to raise suspicion. A spate of deportations last year has only escalated fears.
Mulugeta Zewdie Mamo, the UNHCR representative, confirmed that the Tajikistani authorities deported more than 100 Afghans over the course of three weeks in August–September 2022. Media reports at the time cited a figure twice as high, although the exact number is impossible to verify.
According to a government report obtained by RFE/RL’s Radio Ozodi last December, Dushanbe told the U.N. Human Rights Committee that the deported Afghans had violated local laws and posed a security threat. Earlier, the UNHCR had raised “grave concerns” over the refoulements, warning that forcing refugees to return to Afghanistan against their will is “illegal and puts lives at risk.” “When we see the profile of the persons who have been deported, we find families with women and children, with persons with physical challenges,” Mamo tells The Beet. “And our concern was: how would these people be a risk for national security?”
On the Afghan side of the border, the local UNHCR office was able to provide assistance to the deportees. However, it’s impossible to confirm what happened on a case-by-case basis, due to the Taliban’s wide-ranging censorship and attacks on the press. When contacted by The Beet, a Taliban immigration officer who worked at a crossing point with Tajikistan in August–September 2022 claimed that he was unaware of the deportations.
‘Not a durable solution’
After the Taliban returned to power in 2021, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon expressed his support for Afghanistan’s population, declaring that “the international community [did] not have the moral right to abandon the Afghan people.” He also blamed the crisis on foreign intervention.
Earlier, Dushanbe had claimed that it was ready to accept as many as 100,000 Afghan refugees. But Tajikistan’s interior minister later walked this back, citing material difficulties and a lack of necessary infrastructure. A year after the Taliban takeover, Tajikistan had taken in only 5,700 additional Afghan refugees.
Meanwhile, the Tajikistani authorities were carrying out a wave of repressions aimed at stamping out dissent as Rahmon — who has been in power for more than 30 years — continues to lay the groundwork for transferring power to his son, Rustam Emomali.
Thus, the U.N. expects Tajikistan to continue its “closed-border policy” in 2023, “limiting protection space for asylum-seekers and refugees” and “creating a high risk of refoulement.”
Be that as it may, the Tajik government remains the Taliban’s strongest opponent in Central Asia. Diplomatic ties were nonexistent until March 2023, when a delegation from Kabul visited the Afghan consulate in Khorog and reportedly brought it under the Taliban regime’s control. The Afghan embassy in Dushanbe, meanwhile, remains under the control of the anti-Taliban opposition. Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, has also visited Tajikistan repeatedly.
These circles are of little help to civilian refugees, however. Deprived of funding, the Dushanbe embassy focuses mostly on ways to maintain its legitimacy and ensure its survival. Embassy staff did not respond to The Beet’s requests for comment.
* * *
Even refugees who enjoy their life in Vahdat, who are grateful for locals welcoming them and feel safe in the city’s streets, don’t picture a long-term future for themselves and their families in Tajikistan. Obtaining Tajik citizenship is almost impossible, even for refugees who arrived decades ago.
Baqir, for example, still has an Afghan passport. So do his children, although the youngest among them were born in Dushanbe. Many Afghans who were born, raised, and now work in Tajikistan encounter the same issue. The citizenship process is so complex that the UNHCR describes it as effectively hypothetical. “Naturalization is not considered as a durable solution in the case of Tajikistan,” the refugee agency says.
As a result, many Afghan refugees are counting on receiving visas to Canada. More than 4,200 left Tajikistan through a Canadian sponsorship program in 2022 alone. Others have been waiting for more than a year and half, hoping finally to reach a permanent home.
Sign up for The Beet
Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.