Imagine being a member of a little-known, persecuted minority attempting to flee your homeland, where you are at risk of being locked up or even killed, when few outsiders know or even care who you are.
Such is the reality for members of Tajikistan’s Pamiri community, an ethnic minority who are culturally, religiously and linguistically different from Tajiks, the largest ethnic group in the country.
Pamiris were subjected to what has been described as ethnic cleansing by Tajik forces during the country’s civil war from 1990 to 1997, and have been persecuted by the authorities ever since.
But when the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination met in April to discuss Tajikistan’s compliance with the convention that seeks to end racial discrimination, the head of the Tajikistan delegation, justice minister Muzaffar Ashuriyon, denied the existence of Pamiris as a distinct ethnic minority.
A year earlier, in May 2022, the Tajik authorities violently suppressed a peaceful demonstration in Khorog, the capital of the remote and mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), home of the Pamiris.
The protesters were seeking justice for continued government harassment and abuse, which had intensified in the months leading up to the protests.
Pamiris are reportedly prohibited from speaking the Pamiri languages in public and from hosting prayer meetings in their homes. Scores of the region’s activists, journalists and lawyers are serving lengthy prison sentences, charged with extremism and conspiring against the state.
At least 10 families in GBAO have between two and ten members behind bars in relation to protests between November 2021 and May 2022, according to Radio Ozodi, the Tajik branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Hundreds of NGOs in Tajikistan have been closed by court order or forced to liquidate, according to the country’s Ministry of Justice. Facilities in GBAO belonging to the Aga Khan Foundation (the Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of the Pamiris), such as the medical centre and the Aga Khan Lyceum in Khorog, are being nationalised by the central government.
Growing numbers of Pamiris, especially young men, are fleeing the country for fear of being persecuted by the authorities. Some have crossed into neighbouring Russia, some into Turkey, while others have tried to reach the relative safety of the European Union or the US.
Many have spent several months on the road, often suffering mistreatment, and few have found anything close to secure asylum.
There have been at least 20 cases of disappearances of Tajik citizens from Russia and Türkiye since 2006, according to exiled Tajik journalist Anora Sarkorova.
Last year Sarkorova reported that dozens of GBAO natives living in Russia had received orders from Tajikistani security agencies to return home to stand trial for serious crimes, and were threatened with deportation and harsh punishments if they did not voluntarily return.
‘We all want to go home’
Two Pamiri asylum seekers – who are too fearful to reveal their real names or any identifying details – shared their stories with me.
The first is a Pamiri man who fled the country just as the Khorog protests were starting in May last year, after he was summoned for questioning by the police. He initially crossed into Russia but fled to Belarus when he learned that Russia was deporting Tajiks.
Feeling equally unsafe there, he then tried to cross to Lithuania, an EU member state. But the Lithuanian border guards beat him and used electric shock treatment on him, he said, before sending him back to Belarus, where he was beaten by the Belarusian guards.
The man finally managed to reach Germany, where he is now in temporary accommodation available to asylum seekers until their application for refugee status is determined. But he says he is “in hiding”, because he is afraid the Tajik authorities will try to extradite him.
“We all want to go back home. My father and mother – both are retired – are there. Who would want to stay in countries where you are so unwelcome? If only I could go back without fear of repercussion,” he told me.
The second Pamiri man I spoke with left Tajikistan for the US when his brother was arrested. They had both participated in the protests in Khorog and his brother was handed a lengthy prison sentence, with their mother also called in for questioning.
Later, their father died of a heart attack after visiting his son in prison. The family believes his death was due to the stress of their ongoing persecution by authorities. Their mother remains alone in Khorog, unable to make the long journey to visit her son in prison in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe.
The man told me that the police “found comments supporting the May protests that [my brother] left on social media, [and] apprehended him. He was sentenced to ten years in prison very quickly.”
“He did not recognise our father when he came to visit him,” the man said, explaining that he believes his brother’s memory problems were the result of being badly tortured.
“[My brother used to be] very healthy and athletic, never had problems with his eyesight, but he did not recognise him,” he added. “When our father left the prison, he did not make it back home, [he] died from a heart attack,” he added.
There has been some international criticism of the crackdown that followed the Khorog protests in 2022, including by the EU delegation in Tajikistan during the annual human rights dialogue in December 2022. But the ongoing harassment and persecution of Pamiris remains largely unaddressed by the country’s international trade partners.
Persuading the Tajikistan authorities to recognise the existence of the Pamiris, to stop the repression and to give them equal rights – this must be the fundamental long-term goal.
In the meantime, Russia and other neighbouring countries must be open to supporting those who are fleeing Tajikistan to escape harassment and discrimination.
EU members, as well as countries as far away as the US, can also recognise this minority by providing asylum to those no longer able to live in their homeland without fear of persecution.