The Kyrgyz government must ensure that Uzbek asylum seekers fleeing the recent government killings in Uzbekistan are not forced to return to their country, where they remain at great risk, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch called on the Kyrgyz government to make clear and unambiguous commitments—in words and deeds—to Uzbek asylum seekers.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should work closely with the Kyrgyz government to move the refugees away from the border to a safer location and with significantly improved conditions.
“Kyrgyzstan did the right thing by allowing the first wave of Uzbek citizens to enter its territory,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But it must ensure respect for the right to seek asylum. If people are pushed back at the border or forcibly returned to Uzbekistan, they could be killed or tortured.”
In 2003 the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture found torture in Uzbekistan to be “systematic.”
More than 500 Uzbek citizens fled their homes in Andijan and sought refuge in Kyrgyzstan since May 13, when Uzbek security forces opened fire on protestors in the city, reportedly killing hundreds of people and wounding many others. Those who fled are currently sheltered in Jalal Abad province in southern Kyrgyzstan in a camp that, with its restrictions on access, is essentially a detention center. In addition, the camp is located on disputed territory near the border of Uzbekistan.
Human Rights Watch expressed its deep concern at reports that the governor of Jalal Abad province held a public meeting Tuesday at which he said that he would not allow Uzbek refugees to stay in the province. The governor said, “It is in our tradition to treat strangers as guests for only the first three days, but not more. These people should live in their own country.”
“Such a clear and hostile message from an important government official sends chilling signals about the Kyrgyz government’s commitment to protect refugees fleeing from oppression,” said Cartner.
Human Rights Watch investigators visited the Uzbek refugee camp in the border town of Kara Darya in the Suzak district in Jalal Abad, Kyrgyzstan. The camp is under the authority of Kyrgyz security forces (SNB the successor to the KGB), and refugees appear to be treated as prisoners. Refugees are not allowed to enter or leave the camp freely and they are denied the use of cell phones. In addition, Human Rights Watch staff found harsh conditions and infrastructure that was insufficient to meet people’s needs. For instance, there were only 10 tents available to shelter more than 500 Uzbek refugees, as well as insufficient supplies of food and water. Staff watched the camp residents picking through grain infested with insects in order to gather some edible food.
“These deplorable conditions are threatening people’s safety by potentially forcing them to choose between desperate hunger in Kyrgyzstan and life-threatening danger in Uzbekistan,” Cartner said.
While expressing concern over such inadequate conditions, the rights group urged the Kyrgyz government and UNHCR to shift the camp to safer ground as soon as possible. The current location, in a “no-man’s land,” is dangerously close to Uzbekistan and on disputed territory.
“The camp should be moved as quickly as possible to safer ground,” said Cartner, “And the international community should provide the Kyrgyz government with sufficient resources to meet the needs of all asylum seekers and refugees.”
In addition, there have been serious allegations that the Kyrgyz authorities have provided details about the asylum seekers, including their names and addresses, to the Uzbek government. Human Rights Watch is concerned that Uzbek authorities could use the information to retaliate against the asylum seekers’ relatives back home.
“If Kyrgyzstan grants Uzbek officials access to information and procedures affecting the refugees, it will turn the hallowed tradition of asylum into a farce,” said Cartner. Human Rights Watch urged the Kyrgyz government to firmly reject any requests from the Uzbek authorities to deport or extradite people to Uzbekistan.
The group called on the Kyrgyz government to ensure that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has a primary role in determining the status of applicants from Uzbekistan.
As a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Kyrgyzstan is obligated keep its borders open and to provide at least temporary protection to refugees fleeing persecution and human rights abuse until individualized status assessments can be made. Returning a person to a country where he or she faces a real risk of torture violates the Convention against Torture, to which Kyrgyzstan is also a party.