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Kyrgyz Crisis Brings Global Refugee Problem Into Focus

Ethnic Uzbek refugees in the village of Sura-Tash on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border
Ethnic Uzbek refugees in the village of Sura-Tash on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border
WASHINGTON -- This week, thousands of people in southern Kyrgyzstan streamed toward neighboring Uzbekistan, fleeing for their lives after ethnic violence erupted. While some were granted passage, uncertainty reigned and a humanitarian crisis exploded on both sides of the border.

Abdufattoh Rasulov, an ethnic Uzbek, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that many people died in a stampede.

"Corridors are so narrow and people push one another. Old men and women, as well as small children, fell under [other people's] feet. Uzbek border guards periodically close the border and then open again in an hour. People wait the whole night sitting on the ground," Rasulov said.

The ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan has displaced some 400,000 people -- an unprecedented event in the country's history. But that figure represents less than 1 percent of the total number of involuntarily uprooted people in the world.

Released ahead of UN World Refugee Day on June 20, the new data says that at the end of 2009, there were 43.3 million refugees, internally displaced persons, and asylum-seekers worldwide. It's the highest number in 15 years.

Pakistan, which is home to 1.7 million refugees -- more than any other country -- is perhaps the starkest example of the trends behind the numbers.

Babar Baluch, describing the situation in his home country, says Pakistan has "a protracted refugee situation that now spans over more than two decades."

"Afghans that have been displaced since 1979 and are still living in Pakistan. But what we are seeing as a trend is that the voluntary repatriation of those Afghans from Pakistan is on the decline," Baluch says.

As violence and insecurity persist at home, he notes, fewer people are inclined to return.

As a result, one out of every four refugees in the world last year was an Afghan. Seventy-one countries have granted Afghan asylum seekers refuge.

But displaced Afghans comprise just one of 25 protracted refugee situations, which UNHCR defines as occurring when more than 25,000 people of the same nationality live in forced exile for five or more years. Iraqi refugees constitute the second largest refugee group in the world.

At the end of 2009, 5.5 million refugees were in a protracted situation, a figure that represents more than a third of the world's total refugee population. In addition, voluntary repatriation has plummeted worldwide. Just over a quarter of a million refugees chose to return to their home countries last year -- the lowest number since 1990.

Babar says the refugees he's spoken to in Pakistan still consider themselves Afghan despite years outside the country.

Questions of identity and the concept of home become more problematic, however, in cases such as Kyrgyzstan, where ethnic Uzbeks are fleeing to a country that's not their own, but which they are linked to by ethnicity. For others who have fled their native countries, the notion of where "home" is remains clear.

'This Is Not My Homeland'

Kianoush Ramezani, a leading Iranian cartoonist who fled for his safety last year after publishing cartoons of postelection unrest, is now seeking asylum in France.

"Even though French people and rights organizations here treat Iranians with respect, still this is not my homeland. There are problems, there is always homesickness and nostalgia -- the thought that I will not be able to see my country and Tehran for a long time, the thought of not being able to be with my family," Ramezani says.

"I wasn't even able to see them and say goodbye because of the way I was forced to leave the country. These are all pains that one has to experience to understand what it means to be a refugee and why refugee status is usually associated with pain and sadness."

But returning home, even if not mandated by the host government, can bring with it its own challenges.

Elizabeth Campbell, who leads work on Iraq at Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group, says that Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan are often unable to join the official economy.

Among the most extreme coping mechanisms is what Campbell calls "survival sex," when women become prostitutes to get by in their host countries.

She notes that repatriation can be just as desperate: "The worst-case scenario, I would say, is that some are choosing -- really out of desperate circumstances -- to return to Iraq because they can't afford to live in exile anymore. When we were in Iraq in February, we met some of those families, and they basically had returned to live as squatters in slum areas."

There, they joined some of the 1.5 million internally displaced Iraqis.

Campbell says the Iraqi refugee population is now beginning to feel the effects of "donor fatigue," as aid money dries up or is diverted.

For some, resettlement to a third country is the answer.

On June 18, the UN announced that 100,000 Iraqi refugees had been referred for resettlement from the Middle East since 2007. UNHCR head Antonio Guterres, in Syria to mark World Refugee Day, called the figure a "tremendous achievement."

Most of those accepted for resettlement now reside in the United States.

RFE/RL senior correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.

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