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Afghanistan’s Shi’ite Minority Suffers ‘Systematic Discrimination’ Under Taliban Rule

In February 2020, Afghan citizen Ali Mahdi Hussein arrived in the southern Russian resort town of Mineralniye Vody, known for its health spas, at the invitation of a relative.

During his stay, the militant Taliban continued its territorial advances against government forces at home. Before he was due to depart for home, Hussein requested – and received – temporary asylum in Russia.

When he sought to extend his asylum at the end of 2022, more than a year after the Taliban toppled the Western-backed government and imposed its repressive form of authority over Afghanistan, he was in for an unpleasant surprise.

The branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the Stavropol region, where Mineralniye Vody is located, turned him down. Afghan law under the Taliban provides for the protection of core civil rights, it said.

Furthermore, it claimed Hussein was not in a high-risk group category.

Hussein’s case was not an exception, advocates for Afghans in Russia say. They say that Russian authorities, especially in its southern regions, have been turning down a greater number of Afghan requests for temporary asylum, despite the dire political and economic situation in the Asian nation.

“The Ministry of Internal Affairs usually extended the permission to stay in Russia – first for three months, then for a year, and so on. There was practically no need to go to court [to appeal] because there were few refusals,” said Ebadulla Masumi, the head of an Afghan community group in Stavropol.

But that trend has now rotated 180 degrees — and it’s unclear why, Masumi said.

“In 2023, they began to deny everyone [asylum extensions] without explanation. There has not been a single positive decision during this time. I don’t know what has changed – the law or the policy of the state,” he said.

A group of Afghan refugees who were recently deported from Iran to Afghanistan are seen in Herat earlier this month.

A group of Afghan refugees who were recently deported from Iran to Afghanistan are seen in Herat earlier this month.

Moscow doesn’t publish the number of rejected asylum cases, but does publish those approved. From 2007 to 2011, Russia gave temporary asylum to more than 1,000 Afghans per year on average, more than to refugees from any other country. Temporary asylum is granted for one year and can be extended if the political situation in the home country does not change.

From 2020 to 2022, amid restricted travel due to the COVID pandemic, Russia granted on average only 600 requests for temporary political asylum to Afghans.

The suspected increase in Afghan asylum rejections comes amid growing repression by the Russian state, which has clamped down harder than ever on all forms of dissent following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

That war has also triggered a large influx of Ukrainians to southern Russia, thousands of whom have applied for asylum.

Russian authorities may be rejecting Afghan asylum seekers amid concern they will seek monetary assistance, Andrei Serenko, the head of the Center for the Study of Afghan Politics, told RFE/RL.

He said Russian authorities are using the resources set aside for such issues on Ukrainians. Russia granted nearly 9,000 Ukrainians and 732 Afghans temporary asylum in 2022, government data shows.

“You can say they were just unlucky — they got here at the wrong time,” Serenko said of the Afghan refugees who have been seeking asylum recently.

Ali Akbarzadeh, 22, who was turned down for asylum and deported, said Russian authorities showed little interest in Afghan requests for temporary refuge.

“It took a long time and they didn’t pay much attention to Afghans and their asylum applications,” he told RFE/RL.

Taliban Turbulence

Many Afghan asylum seekers in Russia have said they could face persecution, and even death, if they are sent back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. RFE/RL could not verify individual claims.

Some of them worked for the deposed government or had relatives who did. The Taliban has allegedly targeted former members of the government for repression.

Hussein Navid and Habiba Nabizadi arrived in Pyatigorsk, another resort town in the Stavropol region, in September 2022 on a tourist visa with their two young children.

They soon applied for temporary asylum but had their request turned down. Nabizadi had worked for the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the intelligence agency of the former government of Afghanistan, and was a member of a prominent women’s organization.

In their application for asylum, her family said they feared for their lives if they went back, in part due to her previous work.

Afghans hold placards as they gather to demand help from the UN for asylum abroad in Islamabad on May 12, 2022.

Afghans hold placards as they gather to demand help from the UN for asylum abroad in Islamabad on May 12, 2022.

In many of the asylum rejections, Russian officials contend the Afghan citizens are exaggerating the threats to their lives at home and claim their real motivations for staying are economic.

Information about what has happened to Afghan refugees sent home by foreign countries since the Taliban takeover is hard to come by, but the overall lack of human rights and civil rights protections is well-documented.

Some Afghan refugees who worked with the former Afghan security forces have been detained by the Taliban following their deportation from Iran, but their subsequent fate is unknown.

The Taliban took power in Afghanistan in August 2021 after the United States pulled out its troops, resulting in the near collapse of government forces. The militants allegedly killed dozens of former Afghan officials, security forces, and people who worked with the international military contingent, despite their promise of a general amnesty.

They quickly imposed their strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Shari’a, on citizens, including severe restrictions on women and girls.

Their repressive rule, along with the economic collapse their seizure of power triggered, led to a mass exodus of citizens seeking refuge in neighboring countries and countries farther afield, including Russia.

Like many other countries, Russia officially considers the Taliban a terrorist organization. Nonetheless, Russian officials regularly hold meetings with the militants in Moscow as the Kremlin seeks to project global influence and power and undercut U.S. clout.

President Vladimir Putin announced in October 2021 that Russia would “move” toward excluding the Taliban from his government’s list of terrorist organizations, but Moscow has yet to do so.

Russia is far from alone in rejecting Afghans seeking refuge, and the numbers are much larger in some countries that border Afghanistan. Iran and Pakistan have been deporting large numbers of Afghans. Last week alone, Tehran forced around 20,000 undocumented Afghan refugees and migrants out of the country.

Turkey has also deported thousands of Afghans who have arrived via Iran.

Tajikistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, has also forced some of the thousands of Afghan refugees arriving there to return home, but official figures are not available.

Written by Todd Prince based on reporting by RFE/RL North Caucasus Service correspondent Andrei Krasno. RFE/RL’s Radio Farda contributed to this report.


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