Ukraine has deported 10 asylum seekers to Uzbekistan, where they face torture and abuse, Human Rights Watch said today. These deportations violate international law.
On the night of February 14-15, a group of 10 Uzbek men was deported to Uzbekistan, apparently pursuant to an Uzbek extradition request. An eleventh detained man was not deported, apparently because he had relatives in Ukraine. Nine of the 11 Uzbeks had registered as asylum seekers with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kiev. Human Rights Watch learned prior to their deportation that the other two wanted to lodge asylum requests, but had not been able to do so. UNHCR issued a statement today deploring the forced return of the entire group.
“Ukraine had a duty to protect these people and instead it sent them back to almost certain torture and abuse,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the government needs to find out how it could have happened that asylum seekers registered with UNHCR were deported. And it must take steps to ensure that it never happens again.”
Six of the men were originally detained in the Crimean town of Nizhnegorsk on February 7. Two days later the remaining five were detained in Belogorsk, also in Crimea. The men were all held in state custody in the Crimean city of Simferopol before being deported.
According to UNHCR, the Uzbek extradition request alleged that the men were involved in the May 13 events in Andijan, which ended in a massacre in which hundreds of civilians were killed by Uzbek security forces. Uzbekistan has sought the extraditions of other people whom it says were involved in the Andijan events and who are seeking asylum in other countries, including Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
As a party to the international Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol, Ukraine has an obligation not to return people who would face threats to their lives or freedom upon return.
In addition, the European Convention on Human Rights, by which the Ukraine is legally bound, strictly prohibits the deportation of any person – no matter what their crime or suspected activity – to a country where they face a real risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
The U.N. Convention Against Torture, to which Ukraine is also a party, imposes a similar prohibition on Ukraine. In 2003, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, found torture in Uzbekistan to be “systematic.”
Given the grounds on which Uzbekistan has reportedly sought the extradition of the 10 men, and Uzbekistan’s human rights record, the deportation almost certainly violates these human rights treaties, regardless of whether the men were refugees within the terms of the Refugee Convention.
Human Rights Watch is also concerned that the men appear to have been denied basic due process rights guaranteed to them under international law and Ukraine’s international human rights obligations. On February 14, the Kiev District Court of Simferopol ordered the men’s deportation following a refusal by the local migration service to grant them refugee status.
The men were given no effective opportunity to appeal the deportation, according to the Russian human rights groups Memorial and Civic Assistance. The two Russian groups said that Ukrainian migration officials alleged that the men had waived their right to appeal the denial of refugee status. The right of the men to appeal their decision is protected by Ukraine’s obligations under both the European Convention on Human Rights and the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
UNHCR stated in its press statement that it had requested access to the men while they were in Ukrainian custody.
“Ukraine has a duty to ensure that no deportations occur without due process. The Ukrainian authorities must also ensure that asylum seekers are never returned without a thorough examination of their refugee claims,” said Cartner. “The accelerated decision to deport asylum seekers of concern to UNHCR without giving it access to the applicants convinces us that Ukraine trampled upon basic procedural rights as well as the fundamental right against refoulement.”
Ukraine is host to many Uzbek citizens who have fled persecution in their home country. But the actions of the Ukrainian government are preventing vulnerable people from exercising their legal right to seek protection. Human Rights Watch has learned that at least nine other Uzbeks who worked at the same bakery as the deportees want to file asylum claims, but are now afraid to come forward.
In November, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants in Ukraine. The report found a barely functioning system for dealing with asylum seekers, with inadequate protection against return to torture and persecution, resulting in the forced return of asylum seekers at risk.
Human Rights Watch is also concerned about the imminent forced return of two UNHCR-recognized Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan following a ruling by the Kyrgyz Supreme Court on Wednesday, February 16 that denied them asylum. They are part of a group of four refugees facing an extradition request by Uzbekistan based on their alleged involvement in the May 13 Andijan events.
“These Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan are well-known to Human Rights Watch and the international community,” said Cartner, “We firmly believe that they will face certain torture and ill treatment if they are returned to Uzbekistan.”