Background Briefing

Refugee crisis

Assertion: “The Government of Uzbekistan has not applied pressure to prevent citizens of Uzbekistan with mandated refugee status granted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from travelling to a third country.”

The government has claimed it is seeking only the return of wanted criminals to Uzbekistan so that they can face trial. But in fact the Uzbek government has engaged in a campaign to pursue the return of individuals who, fearing persecution, fled Uzbekistan after the violence in Andijan. This campaign has triggered a serious spillover human rights crisis, with a number of individuals already forcibly returned to Uzbekistan and scores of others living in constant fear of being returned to risk of torture and other severe abuses. Several dozen people who fled persecution in Uzbekistan to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have been deported to Uzbekistan or kidnapped and brought to Uzbekistan. The government has requested and in some cases secured the extradition of refugees and asylum seekers on grounds that in some cases appear to be politically motivated.

Dozens of Uzbek asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan appear particularly vulnerable. The Kyrgyz government’s decision in August 2006 to return four refugees and one asylum seeker whose extradition Uzbekistan had sought for a year sent a broad signal that the Kyrgyz government could not be relied upon to adhere to its obligations under refugee law. Since June 2006 at least five Uzbek asylum seekers have disappeared from Kyrgyzstan; at least two of them are alleged to have been kidnapped. At least two of those who disappeared were reportedly held in Uzbek National Security Service custody after their return to Uzbekistan, and it is feared that the other three have also been returned to Uzbekistan.

In addition, Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies have detained a number of asylum seekers as part of what the government calls counterterrorism sweeps, which are believed to be carried out in close consultation with Uzbek security forces. One detained asylum seeker told Human Rights Watch that police threatened to send him back to Uzbekistan, but released him after UNHCR intervened. Other detainees were also released.

Separately, the government has promised numerous refugees who were evacuated in the summer of 2005 from Kyrgyzstan following the Andijan events and resettled in Europe and the United States that they can return home with no fear of persecution. The government’s long history of repression, however, leaves ample room to doubt these promises. Some of these refugees have recently returned to Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch cannot question the desire of these individuals to return to their homeland, their children, and other close family members, many of whom are in prison and have no one else to care for them. Yet we remain concerned that Uzbek authorities may be using a combination of threats and promises to lure resettled refugees to return. For example, an ethnic Uzbek resident in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, told Human Rights Watch that he believed his brother back in Uzbekistan had been forced to call relatives resettled in the United States to tell them that “very big people” would guarantee their safety if they returned home. Prior to that incident, the brother had been summoned by the Uzbek National Security Service. Similar promises are believed to have been made to resettled refugees.

Details about the whereabouts and fate of those returned to Uzbekistan are scarce, but there is every reason to be concerned about their safety and well-being. The Uzbek government has steadfastly denied access by independent monitors to those who have been extradited or kidnapped and subsequently imprisoned. The state-controlled media has published statements by refugees who had resettled in the U.S. and then returned to Uzbekistan that they are happy to be home and are under no pressure. But in the current repressive climate it is extremely difficult to determine how the government is in fact treating these individuals.