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Migratory processes globally and locally. Migration at both the domestic and international levels, and that of Central Asia, has been addressed elsewhere (see, e.g. Achacoso, 2006;
Brettell and Hollifield, 2007;
Fryer and Virkkunen, 2011;
Ryazantsev and Horie, 2011). International labour migration is conceptualised in classic economic terms, with any numerous ‘push or pull’ factors providing individuals the impetus to leave their homelands and move abroad in the search for work. But how does so-called ‘creeping migration’ relate to this framework?
Creeping migration (or colonisation) is a phenomenon that is not limited to cross-border encounters, but more generally can be described as the gradual settlement of contiguous territories by individuals. It is differentiated from territorial acquisition or annexation by its lack of force – creeping migration suggests that territories are ‘swallowed up’ almost naturally through the gradual expansion (or, sometimes, very localised migration) of people from one area into another. This can be seen in urban inhabitants gradually swallowing up rural areas surrounding big cities around the world, or else of certain ethnic groups expanding from their established neighbourhoods into nearby ones until they form the majority. The pressures behind this kind of migration are many-fold, including population growth through natural increase or in-migration, the lack of sufficient resources in existing territories (land for agriculture, affordable lands for construction, water deficits, etc.), economic growth, or political policies.
In the context of the borderlands between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, this type of migration occurs across an international border and is, by definition, illegal. In southern Kyrgyzstan creeping migration refers to the unofficial purchasing or settlement by citizens of Tajikistan (also of Uzbekistan, though this is not addressed by this paper) of lands and properties across the border in Kyrgyzstan, contiguous to or within close proximity of the Tajik state border (see also Reeves, 2009). While the scale of this migration remains very small (see below) and should not be perceived as an aggressive act, the symbolic and psychological significance of the phenomenon has elucidated a lively and critical public debate in Kyrgyzstan. It is perceived widely to threaten local livelihoods and, ultimately, the territorial integrity of the Kyrgyz state. This is not the case in Tajikistan, where the issue is not discussed publically.
Locally, however, creeping migration is threatening the security and inter-communal relations in the region and villages, as will be outlined below.
External Migration. Following the collapse of Soviet power in 1991, the states comprising the Central Asian region have been challenged by a number of social, political and economic factors that have been contributing to population movements: a decline of agriculture, scarce resources, poor infrastructure and governance, and political instability. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are estimated to have some of the largest labour migrant communities in Russia, with each providing up to 1,000,000 of their citizens for the expanding Russian domestic labour market (Marat, 2009). While this exodus is questioned domestically, neither government is willing to restrict it due to perceived national dependence upon remittances and fears over domestic unrest with accompanying unemployment.
Foreign labour migration, primarily to Russia, is often seen as the only alternative to further economic, social and political dislocation. While the domestic backgrounds to external labour migration are similar in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the nature of this migration is slightly different: Tajik migration is largely seasonal and dominated by young men, while Kyrgyz migration tends to be for longer periods of time or permanent and involves both sexes. This difference has a great influence on other migratory processes in the region, especially in terms of creeping migration.
Due to their peripheral location and problems in development (e.g. unemployment), the three southern provinces of Kyrgyzstan – and Batken province in particular – have experienced large-scale out-migration resulting in depopulated Kyrgyz villages in sensitive border areas. Simultaneously, it has been confirmed that many Tajik citizens have been purchasing empty Kyrgyz homes and lands, or building new homes in depopulating territories in Kyrgyzstan. This creeping migration has been occurring both further inside the province and, especially, in borderlands close to the border with Tajikistan.
Borders and Populations. Historically, the region has been ethnically mixed.
A result of the Soviet border demarcation in the early twentieth century and later Soviet state policies, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks were living side by side, occupying different social and economic niches and crossing over administrative borders within a single state. The collapse of the USSR and resulting economic decline of the region placed a new emphasis on the institutionalisation of borders – each country rushed to extend central authority over their claimed territories and to secure existing resources. Still today, the process of demarcation is not finished, as the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is only 52% demarcated, with 48% contested (Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 17.5.2012). Most of the contested border is located in the southern Ferghana Valley and Batken / Sughd provinces. A sign of disinterest in resolving the problem or not, but the public discussion about demarcating borderland territories seems to be based on differing versions of Soviet maps, as one local Kyrgyz official perceived. This has, of course, allowed creeping migration to proceed and contribute to a general rise in inter-ethnic tensions at the local level.
From the local Tajik perspective, the un-demarcated border is confusing, and many residents do not understand why they cannot use territories across the border when they have been doing it for decades. As one informant stated in Chorkuh, “before the states were defined as separate countries, [now] we face misunderstandings. We have joint roads;
there are 30 small and big rivers that cross the territories of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is difficult to understand how these natural resources and roads are going to be divided between two states” (11.6.2012). There is an important Tajik enclave located across the border surrounded by Kyrgyz territory – Vorukh. Additionally, the Tajikistani areas directly alongside the border are heavily populated. In general, Sughd Province has a population of 2.1 million and a population density of 84/km2, while Batken has a total population of 430,000 (380,000 de facto, as many registered inhabitants have left in migration) and a density of 25/km2. The Vorukh enclave has a population density on par with Bangladesh, and the result is that land prices in the region are reported to reach $4-4500 per sotok, which is comparable to Moscow suburbs (Satybaldieva, 2012).
The above-described Kyrgyz out-migration and the lack of a demarcated border provide Tajiks an opportunity to obtain lands, which are sorely needed. The fact that Kyrgyz are moving out of neighbouring border villages where good lands and resources are available is perceived as proof that these territories were always Tajik and not Kyrgyz – so why not move to where land and water abounds? The savings of young Tajik labour migrants in Russia actually make these lands accessible, and a dream of an own home closer.
The situation. The above-described informal migration from Tajikistan across the border began in the 1990s when some 300 families moved into Kyrgyz territory and were later naturalised. In the village of Arka, some dozen families bought homes in 2004-06, but were forced to take Kyrgyz citizenship in order to keep ownership. The number of Tajik citizens in Kyrgyz border areas is unclear as they are unofficially resident in the country. Police officials in Batken, however, suggest that almost 150 Tajikistani families have built homes in the region.
In 2011, Batken received special border zone status that meant that the settling of the province by foreign, including Tajik, citizens became illegal. Many Tajik citizens have, however, ignored or circumvented the law through various methods, e.g. by asking Kyrgyzstani relatives (ethnic Tajik citizens of Kyrgyzstan) to buy the land for them or, simply, by building on contested lands and effectively annexing them. What complicates the picture is the frequent (and completely legal) renting of Kyrgyz lands by Tajiks especially for agriculture and pasturing, thus contributing to the overall misunderstanding and mistrust between the two ethnic groups.
Response. An escalating inter-state conflict would not be in the interest of the Tajik government. The economic development prospects of Sughd province are very dependent on access to the water resources and construction materials available in Kyrgyzstan. Any large-scale conflict would be a barrier to development, as well as prevent access to Kyrgyz markets and, significantly, block the vital land route to the outside world. Therefore, the Tajik authorities do recognise that creeping migration is an issue and have attempted to stop it. Both states have signed an agreement that should prevent their citizens from building on contested lands, but this is difficult to enforce locally. Attempts to resettle some border population to other locations in Sughd region have had limited success according to a UNDP official in Dushanbe, as only a handful of families have taken part in the programme.
Related to the above, many officials and NGOs privately suggest that the main problem is the lack of a clear state response to the issue – there is a perception that the authorities are not concerned with solving the issue. Even though local Kyrgyz fear that they will be ‘swallowed up’ as Tajiks move into their communities, the region’s peripheral location far from the capital and the severe divide between northern and southern parts of Kyrgyzstan have left them feeling ignored by the national authorities. The state seems too weak to work effectively with local stakeholders or to negotiate with the Tajik authorities.
There is an inter-state committee to delimit the border. It does not, however, make its work public, leaving local people without trust in the process. As one of our informants from the Kyrgyz village of Samarkandyq complained: “The state committees that have been working on delimitation and demarcation are not successful, they do nothing, no results, I have been working for two years, but I have never seen the members or workers of that committee, who they are, I have not seen them” (3.6.2012). So at the moment, there is no apparent resolution to the issue of creeping migration. The actors at the local level believe that it will continue until the borders are demarcated. It is unlikely that sustainable development will occur until local and national governments are secure in the knowledge of where their authority lies. The following section outlines how two neighbouring villages, connected by a single road and separated by less than 15 kilometres, interpret the phenomenon of creeping colonisation.
Chorkuh, Tajikistan. The Tajik border town Chorkuh, with a population of approximately 35.000 (Jamoat Resource Centre of Vorukh 2011, p. 7), is one of the communities where land remains the most controversial matters for local residents.
Extremely high population density and rapid population growth, as well as a very urgent lack of lands for construction, have resulted in the semi-legal or illegal migration of Tajik families to disputed territories at the border. As one of our informants in Chorkuh expressed it: “You know, the population of Chorkuh is growing fast. Last year in the Jamoat (municipality) of Chorkuh, 1600 infants were born, but 142 people died. Each year about 400 households appear, which is equal to the population of a small district... [therefore] it is impossible to provide families with lands for orchards or for constructing houses” (11.6.2012).
As there is no space even for residential farming in the town itself, the Churkuh Jamoat Development Plan (2011, p. 20) underlines that the resettlement of people to places with more land is “a natural and only answer to the problem”. This created a basis for a governmental, but internationally supported, resettlement programme that aims to voluntarily resettle 850 families from Chorkuh and Surkh Jamoats to the nearby town of Shurab (2011, p. 46). The number of resettled households has remained small and, thus, the aim of preventing further creeping migration at the local level has failed. Empty houses of Kyrgyz labour migrants, low population density and perceived (not necessarily real) accessibility of agricultural and pasture lands at or across the border in Kyrgyzstan has led to a number of Tajiks making unofficial and illegal agricultural and housing arrangements in contested territories.
Not only in the Ferghana valley, but in general the contemporary nationalisation of state territories and the (incomplete) demarcation and delimitation of state borders between the multi-ethnic Central Asian states is somewhat incomprehensible to the population at large. Therefore, many local Tajiks do not consider these informal cross-border arrangements illegal (or semi-legal) – pasturing or procuring a house or land in the Kyrgyz-Tajik border area is not problematic. There are no official statistics on the phenomenon due to its unofficial nature, but creeping migration has developed distrust and inter-ethnic conflict at the Tajik-Kyrgyz border.
Ak-Say, Kyrgyzstan. Ak-Say is a small rural municipality located on the border between Tajikistan and the Tajik enclave of Vorukh. One resident estimates that about 2500 people remain, as a third of the population has migrated away in recent years. It is one of the hotspots at the Tajik-Kyrgyz border where chronic unemployment and pressures on natural resources intermix with feelings of physical isolation from the rest of the country, fears of Tajiks overwhelming the village and threats of cross-border ethnic violence as a result of perceived creeping migration. Traditionally deriving income from animal husbandry, agriculture and salaried work in the Tajik industrial towns of Isfara and Shurab, Ak-Say faced extensive unemployment and out-migration after the collapse of the Soviet Union when animal husbandry decreased and the newly-established border with Tajikistan restricted access to the industrial jobs. Migrating for work in the Kyrgyz cities of Bishkek, Batken and Osh, as well as in the Russian Federation, has become a common practice.
During our fieldwork on the Kyrgyz side of the border, it became very clear that creeping migration to Kyrgyzstan by Tajiks not only has become one of the most sensitive issues locally but, also, a source of constant cross-border ethnic conflict. Within an atmosphere of socio-economic deprivation, locals stake claims for ‘us’ to every resource – be it house, river, field, or rock – that are perceived as being threatened by the numerically-superior ‘them’ on the opposite side of the border. In the nearby Kyrgyz village of Ak-Tatyr, one informant reflected the feelings of his neighbours on the demographic imbalance: “To tell the truth, the population of Vorukh, Chorkuh and Surkh villages is about 100 thousand people, but in Batken raion (district) the population is [only] about 70 thousand people.