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Political Exiles from Central Asia: What Drives People to Forced Migration?

In addition to a large flow of labor migrants from Central Asia, there is a considerable number of people who were constrained to leave their native lands in foreign countries.. Scientists at the department of Politics of the University of Exeter have created and maintain the database of political exiles from the Central Asian countries. This project collects data on extraterritorial security measures undertaken by the five Central Asian states, as well as threats to human rights violations and problems faced by people in exile and opposition movements abroad. Analytical platform CABAR.asia has interviewed the leaders of this project, researchers Dr. John Heatershaw and Dr. Saipira Furstenberg about political exiles, reasons of forced migration from the region, and features of the database.

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Fearing for their life, they choose to flee their home country. Photo: wereldwyd.co.za

CABAR.asia: Please, tell us briefly about your project. Why did you decide to do this?

Dr John Heathershaw. Photo: exeter.ac.uk

John Heathershaw [JH]: Over the period, 2014-2016, as Alexander Cooley and I were working on our book Dictators Without Borders, and Ed Lemon was working on his PhD dissertation concerning Tajikistan’s security measures overseas against its exiles, it became apparent that the activities and repression of political exiles from Central Asia were poorly understood.  There was research being conducted on Russia, China, the Middle East and other countries on these issues but, as is often the case, Central Asia was almost missing entirely.

When a government represses its opposition at home it does not merely stop there but pursues them in exile, sometimes in violation of the sovereignty of other states, and sometimes with their tacit or formal permission. 

But this wasn’t just about filling a gap in our knowledge base.  The important point was that national politics doesn’t simply take place within the borders of a country but beyond them.  When a government represses its opposition at home it does not merely stop there but pursues them in exile, sometimes in violation of the sovereignty of other states, and sometimes with their tacit or formal permission.  This was happening dramatically with Tajikistan in the initial period of our research but was something found across all Central Asian states and much of the world of non-democracies.  Sometimes democracies and supposedly democratic institutions like the policing cooperation agency INTERPOL unwittingly supported these activities.  Our knowledge about exiles and ‘transnational repression’ therefore actually transforms the way we think about authoritarianism geographically and institutionally.

Sometimes democracies and supposedly democratic institutions like the policing cooperation agency INTERPOL unwittingly supported these activities.

What are the reasons that led these people to leave their countries?

JH: Most of the individuals recorded in our database are persecuted by their home state for political reasons.  They are not all political actors but, being independent in their religious or journalistic activities for example, they have been targeted by states which seek to control religious and media discourse.  These individuals have been subject to repression and violence by their home state due to their political activities or their religious affiliation as in the case of Uzbekistan.  Fearing for their life, they choose to flee their home country.  There are no violent actors or terrorists on our database, although they are often accused of violence or terrorism by their home governments.

How many Central Asian countries have the most political exiles abroad in your database? Why exactly from these countries?

Dr Sairita Furstenberg. Photo: LinkedIn.com

Saipira Furstenberg [SF]: The database records 255 political exiles from the 5 countries of Central Asia. These are Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. We have collected information on political cases from the early 1990’s until 2019.

Among the five Central Asian states, Uzbekistan has the highest number of political exiles: our database records 97 cases. It’s important to note that until the death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan was one of the most oppressive regimes in the region. Most of the recorded political exiles in Uzbekistan have been persecuted for their religious affiliation.  They include independent religious Imams and their followers who are associated typically with what the government denotes as ‘Wahhabism’ and Hizb ut-Tahrir movements. In the mid-90, the Uzbek government justified repression of an independent and conservative expressions of Islam as an effort to preserve secularism and stability. From 1998, it was justified in terms of preventing terrorism, particularly from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The government further exploited widespread international fear of ‘religious extremism’ discourse and the struggle against terrorism to justify mass arrest the city of Andijan in 2005 and jail peaceful protesters. The severe restriction on religion expression and the lack of civil liberties forced thousands of Uzbeks to flee their country. The 98 political exiles are the publically-recorded and high-profile figures. However, under Shavkat Mirziyoev the number of political exiles is decreasing.

JH: The other country, who experienced the largest number of political exiles is Tajikistan. Our database records 56 cases. Most of the recorded cases are members of the opposition groups such as IRPT and Group 24. The level of repression in Tajikistan has been rising steadily with since early-2000s with a severe crackdown in 2015 with the ban of the IRPT in the government in the in the wake of what the government said was attempted military coup against Rahmon. Our wider research, however, suggests the ‘coup’ was a factional struggle with a deputy defence minister and an attempt to purge him from the government.  Following the ‘coup’, Rahmon initiated a campaign of intimidation against the party and its adherents. Many of the members were jailed on trumped-up charges, in such context, many opted to flee the county.

SF: We also record a significant number (41 cases) of political exiles for Turkmenistan dates back to the 1990s and early 2000s.  In comparison to these countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have a smaller number of political exile cases in our database. Most of the political exiles are opposition groups, former insiders and government critics such as journalists.

You have indicated that the database contains 255 exiles. How do you collect information about political exiles in your database?

SF: We only collect information that is available online and that has been published. The collection of the material in the database is extracted from events being reported in news media and official policy and judicial reports published either in Russian and English languages. In other words, the database only includes information already made public. We use the following sources to build the database:

  • European Court of Human Rights – check by country in the collection of 3600+ ‘Grand Chamber’ judgements
  • UN Human Rights – check by country/name
  • Human Rights Watch – check by country
  • Amnesty International Urgent Actions – check by country
  • Interpol Red Notices – check by name
  • Eurasianet (news)
  • Fair Trials International
  • Association for Human Rights in Central Asia
  • Norwegian Helsinki Committee
  • Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
  • US State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
  • Google/Bing search by name to pick up general press sources – checks are also made on alternate spellings of names.

Additionally, we consult our civil society partners such as Human Rights Watch, Memorial, Civic Assistance Committee, Amnesty International and Fair Trials to inform us about new cases or to peer-review existing cases. Our reliance on public sources means that the database is inherently limited and can make no necessary claim to be infallible. Academics and analysts using the database should therefore consider that, as a tip of the iceberg, it may not be representative of the whole.

What is the portrait of the average political exile? Are there categories (by what groups can they be divided)?

There is no ‘average’ political exile

SF: There is no ‘average’ political exile.  The individuals recorded in our database are typically opposition parties, civil society, human rights activists, independent journalists or religious clerics. Others as in the case of Mukhtar Ablyazov are former government officials who are seen as serious contenders to the authoritarian regime power. Lately, we have also recorded a significant number of individuals persecuted for their affiliation with the political exiles. These are typically family members and former business associates.

In our database we observe five categories, these are:

  1. Former regime insiders and family members
  2. Members of opposition political parties and movements
  3. Banned clerics and alleged religious extremists
  4. Independent journalists, academics and civil society activists
  5. Others: businessmen, workers or relatives of political exiles persecuted for their affiliation with the individual in political exile wanted by the state authorities.

In which countries do exiles live mainly? What do they do in a foreign land? What difficulties do they face?

Related material: Tajik Refugees in Europe: In Search of a Better Life

JH: By far the largest location for political exiles is Russia as a place with cultural and linguistic similarities and for which a visa is not required.  Other former Soviet states and Turkey are also common locations for these reasons.  Increasingly, however Central Asian exiles seek asylum in Western European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, and France. For example, since 2015, Poland became home for many Tajik political exiles fleeing Rahmon’s regime. Despite the mounting anti-immigrant rhetoric in Poland, for many Tajik exiles, fleeing home persecution, Poland became their second home. Tajik living in Poland are well integrated, they attend Polish-language classes and build up relations with local civil society organisations. 

SF: We haven’t conducted an in-depth study of political exiles life in Europe as this is beyond the project. Some political exiles continue their human rights activism or political activities from abroad. We have the prominent examples of Central Asian activists such as Nadejda Atayeva who runs the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia in France, similarly IRPT has recently set up an opposition coalition in Poland. The National Alliance of Tajikistan is composed four Tajik dissident parties which aims to become a political force and represent the interests of the Tajik diaspora abroad.

Others are forced to change their careers and are employed in low skilled jobs due to language and qualification obstacles in European countries. Therefore, although the arrival of political exiles in Europe, viewed as a safe place, provides an initial relief, they quickly develop frustrations as new problems emerge in their host society. These are ranging from language barriers, legal status, unemployment, family separation.

With the advent of the new government in Uzbekistan, what has changed in relation to political exiles? Can they return to their country without fear of being arrested? Are there any such cases?

SF: Since the arrival to power of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan seeks to improve its image on the global scale.  The country made important efforts to improve its human rights situation. Lately this was demonstrated with the closure of the notorious Jaslyk prison – long a symbol of Uzbekistan’s unhuman torture practices and imprisonment of government critics.  

However, it’s important to note, that at the same time the government remains strongly authoritarian, thousand prisoners are still purging in jail on trumped-up charges, media freedom is still limited and  the security services retain vast powers to harass and detain perceived critics of the government. The space for genuine political pluralism is still very restricted. For these reasons, many Uzbek activists in political exile are reluctant to return.

In 2017, we recorded one case of returned political exile, the Uzbek writer Nurulloh Muhammad Raufkhon. Raufkhon, was in self-imposed exile since 2016, when he was placed on a security blacklist after publishing a book that criticized former leader Islam Karimov. Upon his arrival in Uzbekistan he was detained in the airport and sent to jail for questioning. He was later released by the authorities.

For the sake of a better life, some people leave to Western countries under the pretext of political refugees. How do you separate pseudo-exiles from those who have actually suffered from persecution in their country?

JH: If persons are not politically active and not subject to extra-territorial measures they will not be included in the database. 

SF: However, for analytical reasons in our database we don’t make a distinction between political exiles and pseudo-exiles. We define a political exile as ‘an emigrant who has settled or spent a prolonged period overseas for reasons which are wholly or partly of a political character’.

The category of individuals in political exile bears the following characteristics:

  • Individuals who have previously acted politically, in government or in opposition, in a role which has pitted them against the regime of power, and/or individuals who have previously opposed their government from outside of formal politics.
  • Individuals of civil society, facing the danger of persecution in their home-based country for political reasons.
  • Individuals participating in exile politics —attention here is on exile’s political activities while abroad and its implication on regime’s domestic politics.

JH: It is also important to recognize that some persons become political exiles while overseas as they participate in opposition movements and then become targeted.  These people may not have suffered persecution in their home countries but only once they were overseas (perhaps initially as an economic migrant).  They are effectively made exiles by their government who see them as threats and target them by harassing, threatening and/or seeking their return home.  

You have mentioned that authorities of the Central Asian countries attempt to regain political exiles. In what ways?

JH: Most Central Asian states have relentlessly pursued their high-level exiles such as Ablyazov from Kazakhstan, Kabiri and Umarov from Tajikistan, Obid kori Nazarov.  Umarov and Nazarov were both subject to assassination attempts in Turkey and Sweden respectively in which the involvement of their home governments has been credibly suspected.  Kabiri and Ablyazov are presently free but have been subject to extremely aggressive campaigns by their national security services assisted, in Ablyazov’s case, by Western private security companies contracted by the Kazakhs.  Kazakhstan has spent a vast amount of money and political capital in unsuccessfully pursuing Ablyazov, even using its connections to Berlusconi’s Italy to forcibly extract his family members from a major European democracy.

SF: But this phenomenon of forcible extradition and deportation is most common from Russia where there is a vast amount of legal evidence to show that Russian state actors connive with the Central Asian security services to render targets back to their home country to face politically motivated charges and the risk of torture.

Are there solutions to the problem between political exiles and the authorities in Central Asia?

JH: This is a difficult question.  ‘Solutions’ are found in measures to protect exiles from repression overseas while ensuring they are brought to justice according to the rule of law if they have actually committed crimes.  So, states of exile need to strengthen their mechanisms of preventing repression overseas and providing refuge.  Some, like Russia, are enabling the repression while some, such as the international policing group INTERPOL and some states which are hostile to asylum seekers, are merely passively complicit.  While we lack an effective international criminal court on these matters, some of the high-level political exiles have committed crimes in their countries of exile.  Some (like Ablyazov) have been prosecuted for these.

States of exile need to strengthen their mechanisms of preventing repression overseas and providing refuge.

The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor. 


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