The Stateless 'Border Brides' of Central Asia

A growing number of Uzbekistani women who marry men from across the border in Kyrgyzstan are ending up citizens of neither, meaning they have officially ceased to exist.

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Brides and grooms at a mass wedding in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek / Reuters

When Odina Solieva left her hometown in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley 10 years ago to marry a man from Osh, across the border in Kyrgyzstan, she didn't realize she was giving up her legal identity.

The 30-year-old trained nurse is now one of thousands who have fallen through the cracks. Because she has no valid passport in either country, Solieva can't work and can't go home. She is stateless.

Solieva didn't know that when she first came to Kyrgyzstan she should have registered with the Uzbek Embassy in Bishkek. After five years her passport was automatically invalidated, the Uzbek Embassy later told her; the diplomats there refused her pleas for help. For over a decade people like Solieva could cross the border back to Uzbekistan without a passport, but border controls have become much tighter in recent years.

"I cannot travel back home to visit my parents and siblings. I am stuck," Solieva told EurasiaNet.org. "In addition, I cannot find a job in Kyrgyzstan, where I live with my husband, because I lack the proper documents."

According to estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are about 17,000 stateless people in Kyrgyzstan. Most are Kyrgyzstanis who did not renew their Soviet identity documents after Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan became independent states in 1991 (they had until 2003 to do so). But a growing number are so-called "border brides" from Uzbekistan, who married ethnic Uzbek men in southern Kyrgyzstan and do not possess current papers.

"There are some [Uzbek citizens] who have been living on our territory for two decades," Makhabat Pratova, the head of Osh Province's passport and visa office, told EurasiaNet.org. "They have completely settled here. They have husbands and children here who are citizens of Kyrgyzstan. But their status is not defined."

Pratova says today in Osh Province alone, at least 3,000 people have invalid or expired Uzbek passports. "As their passports are expired, we cannot give them residence permits to help them obtain the status of migrants or Kyrgyz citizenship," said Pratova. "They are stateless."

There is no legislation in Kyrgyzstan to help these "border brides," and without valid passports they cannot go back to Uzbekistan to get their papers renewed, said Azizbek Ashurov, the director of the Osh-based non-governmental organization Ferghana Lawyers Without Borders, which, with UNHCR funding, provides free legal advice to stateless people.

Most of the cases are found in areas of southern Kyrgyzstan abutting Uzbekistan. "Most are former citizens of the Republic of Uzbekistan who arrived in Kyrgyzstan to marry citizens of Kyrgyzstan. After five years of residence outside Uzbekistan, the national passport of a person without consular registration becomes invalid," Ashurov explained. "Now they don't have access to the naturalization process due to their invalid passports."

"They have integrated into the local community. They consider themselves residents of the Kyrgyz Republic, and their children are citizens of this country."

Reached by telephone, an official at the Uzbek Embassy in Bishkek said the mission provides "all possible assistance to citizens of Uzbekistan whenever they address us," but would not discuss specifics.

The only hope these women have is that Bishkek will grant a sweeping migration amnesty to allow them to naturalize based on their years living in Kyrgyzstan. But Kyrgyzstan is not a member to the United Nations' 1954 and 1961 conventions on the rights of stateless people, and thus is under no obligation to help. "The statelessness conventions are the only UN treaties that affirm the right to a nationality and provide practical steps that assist states in realizing this right," said Hans Friedrich Schodder, a former UNHCR representative in Kyrgyzstan.

Though many Kyrgyz officials have a liberal attitude toward emigration, according to Ashurov at Ferghana Lawyers Without Borders, an amnesty is a low priority while Kyrgyzstan's legislature and new president struggle to restore a sense of stability to the country following violent unrest and ethnic violence in 2010.

Madina, originally from a village in Uzbekistan's Andijan Province, has been living in suburban Osh for 14 years. She has four children aged 2 to 12 with a Kyrgyz citizen. "I cannot go home as I lost my passport in June 2010, when our house was looted [during the ethnic violence]. I am stuck in my husband's home unable to go anywhere," she said. "I miss my home in Uzbekistan, the place where I was born, and the people I grew up with. I haven't been there for a long time."

This article originally appeared at EurasiaNet.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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EurasiaNet.org provides information and analysis about political, economic, environmental, and social developments in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as in Russia, Turkey, and Southwest Asia. It is operated by the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute.

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