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Thousands of Afghan Refugees Still In Russia


Thousands in Afghanistan are fleeing to neighboring countries, fearing a possible U.S. military response to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Over the past 20 years, Afghans have been leaving their homeland as the country has endured virtually continuous fighting. More than 100,000 came to Russia where many still face problems.

When members of the ruling Taleban movement came to Timur Shah's door in 1997, he knew his life in Afghanistan was over. Mr. Shah says one of his sons answered the door to find three members of the Taleban asking for his father. He says when the Taleban come to your home in Afghanistan, it means you could be arrested or even killed.

It was then that Mr. Shah decided to flee to northern Afghanistan with his family. From there, like most refugees who escape to Central Asia or Russia, he purchased visas from a smuggler and then crossed the border into Turkmenistan. He made his way by train to Moscow where he, his wife, and three children have been living ever since.

There are an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Afghans living in Russia, making it the largest group of refugees in the country. About 40,000 of them live in Moscow.

Irina Sherbakova is the deputy director of the refugee reception center in Moscow, which helps refugees get legal protection. She says since the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, there have been two waves of Afghans fleeing to Russia. The first fled the fighting that continued after the Soviet pullout. The second group followed the Taleban's rise to power five years ago.

"The first big wave was, of course, in this period, '91 and '92. Then it was like small groups of people," she said. "They were leaving because of war, because they don't have anything to eat. And then the Taleban took authority. Their rules were very, very strict and people started to, it was like a new wave."

Russia was a natural destination for many of those who fled Afghanistan during the 1990s. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, many Afghans worked with the Soviets either in the military or the civilian administration. Thousands studied in Russian schools or universities and are fluent in Russian.

But after the Soviets pulled out and the Taleban came to power, those ties to Moscow could just as easily become a death sentence. People who work with refugees from Afghanistan say that those who worked for the Soviets or fought for them when the country was occupied were often harassed or even killed. Many viewed them as collaborators.

Jean-Paul Cavalieri, from the Moscow office of the United Nations refugee agency, says those who fled Afghanistan included Communist party members, military officers, professors, doctors, and students who studied in the former Soviet Union. "To be a student in the former USSR is enough, maybe not very high affiliation to the party, but that is enough to be at risk in case of return to Afghanistan under Taleban rule.

But those who flee Afghanistan often find they are not welcomed in Russia. Almost all of the Afghans who come to Russia do so illegally. They live here without official documents, meaning they are not allowed to work, rent an apartment, or send their children to school.

Mr. Shah and his family live in one room in a two-room Moscow apartment that they rent illegally for $100 a month. He can not have a full-time job, so does odd jobs to make ends meet.

His two sons and daughter must travel one hour across the city to a special school set up by the refugee reception center because they lack proper documents to attend the local school for Russian children. Mr. Shah and other Afghan refugees say they have problems with the Russian police.

Russian human rights organizations have accused the police of harassing people with dark skin and hair, who they suspect are in the country illegally. Patting his front breast pocket, Mr. Shah says he usually keeps an extra 50 rubles, about two American dollars, in case he is stopped by the police and needs to pay a bribe.

Mr. Shah says he has lost hope that his family can live peacefully in Moscow. He does not have documents to live legally and does not even make enough to feed his family.

If Mr. Shah were to receive official refugee status from the Russian Federation his situation probably would improve greatly. He would have the right to live and work in Russia and eventually, if he wanted, to apply for citizenship. But in Moscow it takes almost two years simply to begin the application process to get refugee status. Then after another two years, a decision is usually given.

Mr. Shah says he applied shortly after he arrived in Moscow. But despite serving in the Soviet army and studying at a Moscow university, his application was rejected. He appealed the decision and is waiting for an answer. In the meantime, Mr. Shah and his family have little chance of safely going back to Afghanistan and little chance to stay legally in Russia.

With the situation in Afghanistan showing little sign of improvement, many more Afghans who travel to Russia may share his fate in the future.

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