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   The UN Link / The United Nations System in Kyrgyzstan
# 256
July 31, 2005

In this issue:


  • Airlift out of Troubles: More than 400 Uzbek Refugees in Safe Heaven


Airlift out of Troubles

More than 400 Uzbek Refugees in Safe Haven, 14 refugees released, four extradited, 15 still in detention

In the early morning of 29 July 439 of the 455 Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan left Bishkek Manas Airport in a Boeing 747 heading to Romania.

The UNHCR and IOM lead operation ended for the refugees a two and a half month situation of insecurity and international tug-of-war about their fate, whilst the future of 15 refugees held in a detention center in Southern Kyrgyzstan is still in limbo.

Earlier in June Kyrgyz authorities detained 33 people of the refugee camp on the basis of an extradition request of the Uzbek general prosecutor suspecting them of criminal activity. Soon after this four of them had been extradited to Uzbekistan against international conventions while 14 of them had been released and could join their compatriots shortly before the Boeing to Romania was scheduled to take off. Regarding the future of the 15 still detained refugees, Carlos Zaccagnini, Chief of UNHCR mission in Kyrgyzstan said the United Nations would “be working with the government to secure their release.''

“Spy-novel Atmosphere”

Having fled to Kyrgyzstan after government forces reportedly opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators in Andijan, eastern Uzbekistan on 13 May, the refugees had increasingly become a major case not only in the relation between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. International rivalries added to a “spy novel atmosphere” in which refugees were taken "hostages to the whole tale," said Zaccagnini. At the United Nations on 28 July, Russia blocked a British and U.S. bid to discuss Uzbek refugees in the Security Council. U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson said the United States would continue to raise the issue of the asylum seekers who fled Uzbekistan after the crackdown.

The Legacy of Andijan Killings on May 13

The exact course of what happened in Andijan in May remains unclear till today, as is the number of people who actually died in the shooting. According to Uzbek officials 187 people were killed while journalists and human rights organizations put the number several hundreds higher. Uzbekistan refused so far to support an independent international investigation on this issue. However the refugees, many of them eyewitnesses, had instead become the main source of information on the events. In mid-June a mission of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was sent to the refugee camp in Kyrgyzstan to prepare for a possible independent investigation concerning the killings in Andijan. Its report, based on interviews and statement of 100 refugees, stated that “consistent, credible eyewitness testimony strongly suggests that grave human rights violations mostly of the right to life, {…} were committed by Uzbek military and security forces. {…} It is not excluded {…} that the incidents amounted to a mass killing.” The mission also recommended the “urgent need for a stay of deportation to Uzbekistan of the Uzbek asylum-seekers and eyewitnesses of the Andijan events who face an imminent risk of torture”, and the relocation to a third country. The international community, under the guidance of UNHCR, now carried out what was recommended.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has given refugee status to all 451 asylum seekers from Uzbekistan on 27 July. They are UNHCR mandated refugees, including the 15 refugees still being held in detention by Kyrgyz authorities. UNHCR mandated refugees are under the direct protection of the UN refugee agency and not of any particular member state.

UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva on 29 July that UNHCR is still very concerned about the fate of the 15. She stressed, "We have strongly reiterated to the Kyrgyz authorities that the Uzbeks in detention should not be returned to Uzbekistan, as this would be contrary to the 1951 Refugee Convention to which they have acceded, and contrary to Kyrgyz national law. The authorities have assured UNHCR that these 15 will not be deported to Uzbekistan but kept in Kyrgyzstan for further processing."

Kyrgyz Government under Pressure

The EU welcomed the departure of 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan, and commended the excellent work of the UN High Commission for Refugees. They also congratulated the Kyrgyz Government on its efforts “to effect their safe and speedy onward transfer,” and encouraged the Government of Kyrgyzstan to sustain its commitment to international law concerning the 15 Uzbeks who remain in Osh in detention.

In the refugee case the Kyrgyz government stood under great pressure from Uzbekistan to extradite the refugees and will have to take a stand to protect the rights and lives of the left behind 15 detained refugees.

“We are captured between two fires”, outlined Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister the difficult situation of her government in an interview with the German newspaper “Die Welt”. On the one hand Kyrgyzstan wants to stick to international conventions on the other hand there is the powerful Uzbek neighbor to which Kyrgyzstan is connected with a couple of treaties and agreements, “with which we have to come to an arrangement with“. The biggest dependence: “If Uzbekistan switches of the gas in winter does this affect the substance of our revolution.”

In this context Thursday the UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan recalled, that “returning refugees or asylum-seekers to a country where they may face torture is a violation of international refugee and human rights law.” He reminded the Kyrgyz authorities that this prohibition -- the principle of nonrefoulement -- is absolute and may not be derogated from or circumvented through any other undertaking, be that a bilateral treaty or any other arrangement.”

A Safer Feeling

At the Manas International Airport in Bishkek in the morning of 29 July it was visible in the faces of the departing how relieved most of the refugees were to be taken out of this international parallelogram of forces. “I do not know much about Romania but I feel safer there,” one of the refugees told and another one who did not want to give his name just said: “Our relatives there in Uzbekistan who managed to visit us in the camp told us not to go back. But we are confident that we will be able to return in future.”

Dramatic scenes took place when the 14 in the last minute released detainees from Osh arrived to join the others. "It was heart-breaking to see the joy on the faces of those who were released from prison when they were reunited with the families they had not seen since May," said Zaccagnini.

For additional information please contact Carlos Zaccagnini, UNHCR, Chief of Mission, Tel. 611264,

     Millennium Development Goals Progress Report - 2003

     Common Country Assessment - 2003

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