Kazakh authorities have selected two sites and allocated funds to set up two refugee centers in a move that appears to have come as a surprise to area residents.
But the biggest questions now are: Who are these refugees? And when and why did Kazakh authorities decide to accept them?
Russia's TASS news agency carried one of the first reports of this curious development on January 29. That report quoted Svetlana Nareshova, acting head of the economy and budget planning department of the government of Kazakhstan's southwestern Mangistau Province, as saying, "The regional budget provides for the establishment of refugee centers under the antiterrorism article of the defense program."
That report made it sound as if these plans for refugees were common knowledge. But, in fact, many people in Mangistau did not seem to know about it and were not happy when they found out.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, went to the region and learned that a petition against housing refugees was being circulated in Mangistau. Some 3,000 people had already signed it. "The experience in Europe shows that a flood of refugees is always accompanied by an increase in crime and additional strains on the budget," the petition says.
Azattyq spoke with former Kazakh Deputy Defense Minister General Amirbek Togusov, who was asking the same questions that many people in Mangistau are asking.
"It's not clear to me which refugees we are talking about," Togusov said. "Where will they come from? From Afghanistan or Iraq?"
Togusov then came to the crux of the matter. "How will the local population receive them?" he said.
Judging by the petition, there are at least 3,000 locals who are against the idea. Its authors claim the government never discussed such a plan with local residents. The authors also recommended spending the money allocated for the refugee center on "low-income families and invalids" in Mangistau.
But rights activist Togzhan Kizatova claimed there is just a small group of xenophobes behind the circulation of the petition and noted that in the first half of the 20th century people of many nationalities were given refuge on the territory of present-day Kazakhstan.
Kazakh political analyst Dos Koshim said there are no refugees but that it makes sense to at least be prepared and have a facility to house them, if they ever appear.
Azattyq sought local officials who could shed light on what the plans were for the refugee centers. Azattyq first telephoned the deputy secretary of the provincial council, Sarzhok Saybagytov. Asked about the planned refugee centers, Saybagytov replied, "We have so many matters to look at every day. I'm not a computer. I can't keep everything in my head. Ask the budget-planning department; ask [Svetlana] Nareshova."
So Azattyq returned to where this story started: Svetlana Nareshova. But while Nareshova was willing to provide some information to Russia's TASS news agency, she was not quite as accommodating with Azattyq. Nareshova said questions should be addressed to Gulmira Balgozhaeva, the press secretary for the Mangistau governor. Balgozhaeva said she would need the questions in written form. Azattyq still has not heard back from her.
As mentioned, Nareshova was a bit more informative with TASS. She suggested that 340 million tenges (around $850,000) had been allocated for the first refugee center, near the border with Uzbekistan, and that a similar center could be established near the border with Turkmenistan. Nareshova also said no refugees were expected in the near future.
The locations are curious. One center would be located in the Beyneu district along the Uzbek border and the other in the Karakiya district on the Uzbek and Turkmen borders. In terms of the landscape, this area -- the only place where Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan meet -- is the northwestern part of the Kara-Kum Desert. It's very dry and very hot and in winter can be bitterly cold.
It is also difficult to believe authorities in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been consulted about this planned refugee camp on their borders. Refugees from Afghanistan made their way into Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the mid-1990s. Neither country welcomed them, and both were anxious to repatriate them as quickly as possible. As recently as 2010, Uzbekistan made clear it would not provide any more than brief shelter for refugees, even when those refugees were ethnic Uzbeks fleeing from Kyrgyzstan.
Azattyq pointed out that maybe nothing will come of this by recalling that, in April 2010, Kazakhstan set up a center in Zhambyl Province to accept anticipated refugees from the unrest in Kyrgyzstan, when the government of former President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted. No one ever came. One ironic aspect to the episode is that Kazakhstan will mark its first Day Of Gratitude on March 1. President Nursultan Nazarbaev created the holiday to remember all the different peoples whom Stalin forcibly resettled in Kazakhstan during World War II.
Based on material by Azattyq correspondent Saniya Toyken