The forgotten Gypsies of Afghanistan demand legal recognition of their rights

Jogi Afghanistan
7 min read
06 October, 2022

In the northwestern suburbs of Mazar-e-Sharif, on the border with the rural world, small shacks made with beige bricks are developing one after the other.

Gul Senam, a Jogi who lives in the area, walks down the community’s alleyway. She opens a small door and enters a courtyard, “we will soon finish our house" she says with pride. "We have always lived in tents, on the road. This is the first time we have had a piece of land with a house of our own."

A few metres from Gul's new home, a group of men dig into the ground. “They are making bricks. We need it to build houses because the community members want to settle here," says a man with a grey beard that makes him look like a wise man.

"There is no official census, but between 20,000 and 30,000 Jogi are thought to live in Afghanistan. They arrived from Uzbekistan 100 to 150 years ago and are mainly concentrated in the north of the country"

Oral is the local Jogi community representative. "We are tired of moving from one region to another," he says. "Usually when we move somewhere, we do not own the land and we end up getting evicted."

Five years ago, after applying for Afghan citizenship, the Jogi leader bought his land with a loan from a cousin. Once his house was built, he pushed his community to follow his example.

“Thirty-five families live in this community. All of them want to stay here. The nomadic life is over for us."

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There is no official census, but between 20,000 and 30,000 Jogi are thought to live in Afghanistan. They arrived from Uzbekistan 100 to 150 years ago and are mainly concentrated in the north of the country.

Semi-nomadic, they usually move between Afghan regions depending on the season or when they are evicted from the land they live on, but more often, they move in search of economic opportunities.

Afghanistan’s Gypsies settled around Mazar-e Sharif years ago because of its economic attractiveness. The city is close to the border with Uzbekistan and trade was intense, at least before the Taliban’s arrival. In addition, the Blue Mosque, an architectural jewel located in the heart of the city, attracts many Afghan and foreign visitors who can represent an economic windfall.

Afghan Jogi
After years of nomadic living, political events have meant that the Jogi tribe of Afghanistan have resorted to a more sedentary lifestyle [Getty Images]

Many Jogi living around Mazar-e Sharif now want to settle down for good.

The years of war between the Taliban and the international coalition allied with local forces (2001-2021) have disrupted their nomadic life, forcing them to move to escape the violence, in extremely precarious conditions.

The traumas linked to the conflict, and the modernisation of lifestyles, gradually push them toward a more sedentary life, in search of stability.

“We are tired of being on the road. We'd like to stay," says Gul Senam.

This phenomenon remains limited however because the Jogi face a major obstacle to buying lands and settling down: not all of them have identification documents.

Unexistent in the eyes of the Afghan state

In a smaller, more precarious camp, without a community leader, located on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif, Sabrena sits cross-legged on a thin blanket in her tent.

With one hand, the young Jogi woman lifts her azure blue burqa, "I was in town to beg for some money. Since the return of the Taliban, it is better for women to go out with a full veil."

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Her face draws large black eyes. Like many Jogi, her brown skin is darker than the rest of the population. "I am originally from Faryab, in the northwest, but my grandfather is from Tashkent in Uzbekistan," she says.

Like other Jogi, Sabrena has no identification paper. "I do not exist in the eyes of the Afghan state," she laments. “Yet, I was born in Afghanistan and I'm about 25 years old now."

In 2011, a study published by UNICEF in partnership with the Samuel Hall Research Center stated that in 78.4% of Jogi and Chori Frosh – another smaller semi-nomadic group – households, no family member had tazkira or identification papers.

An update of this data is necessary because, over the past 20 years, Afghanistan has initiated an integration policy that is bearing fruit according to the non-governmental organisation Minority Rights Group International (MRG), “The Afghan citizenship law adopted in 2000 stipulates that an individual who has lived in the country for more than five years, is over 18 years of age and has not committed any crime has the right to apply for citizenship (...). According to the 2004 Constitution, all Afghans must be treated equally and measures must be taken to improve the livelihoods of nomads."

"To survive, most Jogi beg or work in precarious jobs such as construction or as maintenance workers. An average Jogi household lives on 5,000 Afghanis, which is about $56.55 per month. This is half the salary the rest of the Afghan population earns"

These legislative changes and the work of international NGOs with the Jogi in the camps have resulted in more Gypsies having identification papers. "I got mine five years ago," says Sabrena's neighbour, Aïsha, pulling a sheet of paper, her ID, out of her pocket. “Our neighbour got it two years ago. In theory, it is a good thing, but our life has not really changed. Other Afghans still reject us. We are not accepted by society and we still live in poverty."

Aïsha wanders between the tents. With each step, she creates a small dust cloud under her feet. The ground of the camp is not concrete. All around, most of the tents are made of fabrics unsuited to the Afghan winter. The Gypsy camp’s inhabitants are plunged into deep poverty. Because this land does not belong to them, they can be evicted at any time.

“I have papers, in theory, I can buy a plot of land, but I have no money to do so,” says Aïsha. “It is misery here!"

To survive, most Jogi beg or work in precarious jobs such as construction or as maintenance workers. An average Jogi household lives on 5,000 Afghanis, which is about $56.55 per month. This is half the salary the rest of the Afghan population earns.

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Acute poverty

In the camp’s courtyard, Ahmad places a canvas on the ground before sitting on it. The camp has about ten tents. A modest common kitchen and bathroom have been installed. The inhabitants have no running water, they have to look for it in a nearby well, and no electricity either.

"In these tents, in summer, we die of heat, but the worst is during winter. Fortunately, the UN has offered us adapted tents, but some Jogi in the camp still live with cloth canvases," says Ahmad.

The Jogi man lives with his wife and daughter, a six-month-old baby, in one of the tents of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

"We are a bit lucky, but this is all we have. I used to work in small jobs in the city, mostly in construction, but with the crisis, everyone is unemployed. It is very hard to get two meals a day right now."

Since the return of the Taliban in August 2021, international sanctions have plunged the country into a violent crisis. Restrictions on the banking system have prevented development aid from returning and seriously hampered trade. The Jogi, poorer than the rest of the population, are the first victims.

In a regional Department for Refugees and Repatriation office at the centre of Mazar-e-Sharif, Mula Juma Gul Mohrez pensively strokes his beard.

The Taliban official in charge of the Jogi issue in Balkh province, in which Mazar-e Sharif is the main town, reminds us that he can hardly act because of the sanctions put in place against the Taliban. “The Afghan state is very dependent on international aid," he laments.

However, the Taliban also seem to have shortcomings in terms of public policy.

Having come to power more than a year ago, they have not developed a clear line on the issue of the Jogi. “We are conducting a survey to find out their needs and we will respond once the research is completed,” he assures. Mula Juma Gul Mohrez even seems to reproduce the stereotypes against the Gypsies. "They are not Afghans. Why did they come to Afghanistan? I don't know."

There is still a long way to go for the Jogi community to integrate into Afghan society and end discrimination. They are increasingly recognised by the Afghan State through the request for ID papers.

They now seem to have begun a process of sedentarization that would allow them to stabilise, but is this phenomenon sustainable?

The crisis is making them vulnerable. If they find better economic opportunities elsewhere, they could take to the road again.

Ines Gil is an independent journalist based in Beirut. Her work has appeared in Le Point, Europe 1, Les Clés du Moyen-Orient , Réforme, L'EchoLes News 2415-38 MéditerranéeKapaw.

Follow her on Twitter: @InesGil__