Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – Each time Fatima Framarz boarded a plane from Kabul to Bishkek, she was convinced that she would return to the Afghan capital.
The 31-year-old knew that the education she gained from the Kyrgyzstan-based OSCE Academy will be put to good use in her native, war-torn country.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
With a degree in International Relations, she trained as a journalist and soon after joined the prestigious Etilaat Roz newspaper.
In July, she boarded a plane from Kabul to the Kyrgyz capital again. Little did she know, that was to be her last flight out of Afghanistan.
Following the summer school at the academy, Framarz’s return flight was scheduled for August 15.
“That day, Kabul was handed over to the Taliban and the former Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country. All flights were cancelled,” Framarz said. “With the support of one of my Kyrgyz professors, I went to the UNHCR office in Bishkek to apply for a refugee status.”
Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian nation of 6.5 million people, is not normally a destination Afghan refugees head to. The two countries do not share a border and there are few commercial links between them.
But given Kyrgyzstan’s proximity to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Afghanistan’s neighbours, and the presence of high-quality English language higher education institutes, some Afghans apply for refugee status there.
According to official data by the State Migration Service, as of August 2021, Kyrgyzstan hosted 73 Afghan refugees.
It is unclear how many more arrived or applied for asylum following the fall of Kabul.
But over the years, Afghan wars have seen several refugees flee to Kyrgyzstan. In 2001, at the onset of US invasion, the country hosted around 1,500 Afghans seeking safety.
According to official data, in 2012, around 2,000 Afghans with different types of visas lived in Kyrgyzstan, 800 of whom were registered with the UNHCR.
In recent years, however, Kyrgyzstan has had its own political upheavals.
In October 2020, Kyrgyzstanis seized the presidential office building in Bishkek- the White House – for the third time in 15 years, demanding the resignation of the parliament amid accusations of a rigged election.
In the revolutionary frenzy, prisons were opened and Sadyr Japarov, a former inmate serving an 11-and-a-half year sentence for kidnapping a local official, was soon put forward as the country’s new president.
While the dust has settled and Japarov has set the country on a path to a stronger presidential rule, assuming what some critics say are excessive powers, Kyrgyzstan may struggle to accommodate refugees fleeing the Taliban.
According to the World Bank, Kyrgyzstan’s poverty level reached 31 percent at the end of 2020 and is currently about 25 percent.
Moreover, Kyrgyzstan heavily relies on remittances from its citizens working abroad, mainly in Russia, which constitute approximately 25 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
But Framarz is not worried, for now.
She has enrolled in a Master of Law programme at the American University of Central Asia and is not planning to leave the country before she graduates.
“I like everything about Kyrgyzstan but staying here alone, without a single member of my family, will not be easy,” she said. “Although we all live in an uncertain condition, I plan to join my mother and younger siblings [in a third country] after I graduate.”
Like Framarz, Ali, who requested Al Jazeera use a pseudonym for security reasons, is currently enrolled on a university programme at the American University of Central Asia.
But his road to safety was different from Framarz’s.
As a member of Afghanistan’s long-persecuted Hazara minority, Ali knew that the fall of Kabul would mark his last days in his homeland.
He did not want to spend his future living under the Taliban government.
“I left Kabul on October 2, I flew to Islamabad and then to Bishkek on October 8. I was desperately looking for ways to take my wife and son with me but the university failed to secure visas for them. I abandoned my wife and son and left. I packed my laptop and some clothes and ran to the airport,” Ali said.
“I didn’t choose Kyrgyzstan – it was the only possible destination. It is not a desired place for me but I hope the Kyrgyz government will help me to reunite with my wife and child because with the current situation in Afghanistan, I can’t imagine going back.”
Ali said his wish is to ultimately move to Europe, but if this proves impossible, he would happily stay in Kyrgyzstan, where, he said, people are friendly.
He understands, however, that due to economic issues, growing prices and an unstable political situation, settling down here for good might not be an option.
In addition, Kyrgyzstan is not eager to extend assistance to Afghan refugees.
“The state does not provide any material assistance, but all categories (asylum seekers, refugees and ‘mandate refugees‘ who have been recognised by the UNHCR) have access to medical services and secondary education,” said Ilyana Zhedigerova, a lawyer and director of Precedent, an NGO that promotes the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan.
“But a person who has been granted political asylum cannot be returned to another state.”
As the Taliban took power, the government in Bishkek promised to grant 500 student visas to young Afghans and has sought to evacuate Kyrgyz nomads living on Afghanistan’s territory.
But given its own political instability, Kyrgyzstan, like other Central Asian nations, has considered the question of Afghan refugees in security terms – and that is unlikely to change any time soon.
“The reality is that Afghans were born in a wrong place and that is our biggest problem,” said Ali. “My case is only the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of Afghans, including my friends, who are in desperate quest of evacuation. But there are few opportunities to get out.”
Editor’s note: Aigerim Turgunbaeva reported from Kyrgyzstan’s Bishkek, while Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska reported from Krakow, Poland.