Status of Uzbek asylum seekers unclear

The status of hundreds of Uzbek asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan who fled recent violence in the eastern Uzbek province of Andijan remains unclear.

"Currently, they are [considered] displaced persons," Zafar Khakimov, head of the Kyrgyz migration service, told IRIN from the capital, Bishkek, on Tuesday. "They get the status of refugee only after official inquiries conducted under the UN Convention on Refugees, have been completed."

His comments came 11 days after hundreds of Uzbeks fled Andijan where the Uzbek security forces reportedly opened fire on thousands of protesters in the city square, killing up to 1,000, according to local rights groups. The Uzbek government said that only 169 were killed.

Kyrgyz migration law stipulates that foreign nationals staying in Kyrgyzstan for more than five days should register with the authorities, but many of the Uzbeks in the camp near the Uzbek border in southern Kyrgyzstan do not have any documents with them.

"We issued them [special] registration IDs based on the information provided by them to our officials on the ground, which they use in the camp to receive humanitarian relief items and food," Khakimov said.

The Kyrgyz foreign ministry sent a note to the Uzbek ministry of foreign affairs on Monday, offering to conduct urgent inter-governmental consultations in order to determine the future of the group - most of whom are too frightened by their experiences to return - the Kyrgyz ministry said in a statement.

"So, only after these inter-governmental talks will we decide what to do with these people," the migration official added, noting, however, they were now under the protection of the Kyrgyz government and on Kyrgyz territory and nobody was going to extradite them forcibly.

The office of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) chief of mission to Uzbekistan, Abdul Karim Gul, who recently returned from Andijan, told IRIN from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, that none of the asylum seekers from the city now in Kyrgyzstan interviewed indicated any desire whatsoever to go back, describing the situation in the region as tense.

"We will continue to monitor the situation," Gul said, noting all or some of the asylum seekers may be given refugee status in the near future. "In the meantime, we are obliged to provide them with all the necessary protection and assistance they need," he added.

Bishkek is a signatory to the 1951 Convention related to the Status of Refugees and its protocol of 1967. UNHCR has called upon the Kyrgyz authorities to continue abiding by its international legal obligation and admit asylum seekers originating from Uzbekistan and provide them with protection.

But a government official who did not want to be identified, told IRIN that the Uzbeks currently held in a camp near the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border may well have to leave sooner or later.

"Our relations with Tashkent have always been strained and if not today then tomorrow the Uzbek government might well insist on getting its citizens sent back," he said, adding that the government could acquiesce to its powerful neighbour's demands to prevent any further deterioration in relations.

But civic groups urged the authorities not to repatriate Uzbek asylum seekers. All these people were seeking the status of a refugee and did not want to return to Uzbekistan after having endured unspeakble horrors, Tolekan Ismailova, head of the local Citizens Against Corruption NGO, who recently visited the Uzbeks from Andijan, said on Tuesday, according to the Kyrgyz national Kabar news agency.

"We should not extradite them to Uzbekistan. They are afraid of repression from the Uzbek government and do not exclude the possibility of being persecuted if they return to their home country," Ismailova said, adding international organisations, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the UN, should take them under their protection.