(Osh) - The Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments should open their borders to allow members of the ethnic Uzbek population in southern Kyrgyzstan to seek protection in Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said today. Uzbekistan should make a public announcement once the border is open and ask the UN refugee agency and other humanitarian agencies to help any refugees who cross the border into Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said.
Since violence erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan from June 10 to 14, hundreds of ethnic Uzbek families in the city of Osh have faced arbitrary arrests, detention, beatings, and torture at the hands of the Kyrgyz law enforcement and security agencies. But in recent weeks they have been unable to seek refuge in Uzbekistan, a few kilometers away, because both countries have closed their borders. The abuses are taking place in the context of the government's investigation into the June violence, and Human Rights Watch called on the Kyrgyz government to ensure that the targeting and abuses of ethnic Uzbeks in Osh ends immediately.
On July 17 and 18, Human Rights Watch spoke to more than 100 families, most of whom said they wanted to flee to Uzbekistan but did not know whether they could safely reach the border or would be allowed to cross.
"So many terrified people told Human Rights Watch that if the border was open and if they could get help in Uzbekistan, they would seek protection there," said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch, who is in Osh. "But instead they are stuck in their neighborhoods, afraid of being arrested, and fearful of what awaits them at the border and beyond."
On June 12 and 13, almost 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks fled to Uzbekistan to escape the violence. About 10 days later, local officials went to Uzbekistan and pressured refugees to return, saying it was safe and that it was their duty to return before Kyrgyzstan's June 27 constitutional referendum. Nearly all the refugees returned.
But during the first three weeks of July, Kyrgyz police arrested and abused large numbers of people, most of them ethnic Uzbeks, whom they accuse of participating in the June violence. Human Rights Watch said it was concerned that the government's investigation into the violence disproportionately targeted ethnic Uzbeks.
Living in the ruins of their burned-out houses in Osh, many ethnic Uzbeks told Human Rights Watch that they are in constant fear of being arbitrarily arrested, detained, and abused.
"Ethnic Uzbeks, who have already borne the brunt of last month's violence, are cowering in their homes, afraid of the very law enforcement officials who should have stepped up efforts to protect them," Simpson said. "The Kyrgyz authorities need to immediately end the arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment."
Hundreds of ethnic Uzbek families have abandoned their homes altogether, either living in parts of the city they perceive to be safer or, for the few with enough money, leaving by plane to Russia. But the majority who want to flee - especially women and children - say they have not even tried. They fear abuses by Kyrgyz or police and security forces on the way to or at the border, and are concerned because neither Kyrgyz nor Uzbek authorities have offered public assurances that refugees will be assisted and protected. They worry that they will not find camps or other reception facilities in Uzbekistan and that Uzbek authorities will not allow them to enter or stay.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that as of mid-July the Kyrgyz side of the border was effectively closed and that the Uzbek border was officially closed. The closures mean that all Kyrgyz nationals, including the sizable Uzbek minority living in Osh, cannot cross the border and that only Uzbek and other non-Kyrgyz nationals may do so.
Uzbekistan may not close its borders to individuals directly fleeing persecution and should admit them to assess their refugee claims, or, in the case of a mass influx, it should provide them with at least temporary protection. Uzbekistan should not discriminate in admission based on criteria such as nationality or country of origin, Human Rights Watch said.
Ethnic Uzbeks living close to the official Kyrgyz border crossing near Osh - called Dostuk (Doslik in Uzbek) - say the Kyrgyz side of the border is heavily guarded and that the border is closed to anyone wishing to leave Kyrgyzstan. Local residents recall that on June 11, 12, and 13, Kyrgyz border guards at the Dostuk border fired shots when civilians approached the crossing, which is now causing significant fear about trying to cross there.
Fifteen families who tried to leave Kyrgyzstan in July told Human Rights Watch that Kyrgyz border guards prevented them from leaving. Three other Kyrgyz towns located on the border near Osh - Suratash, VLKSM, and Kulub - are all heavily guarded by military checkpoints, and no one can enter the villages unless they live there or have an invitation letter from a local resident.
After initially closing the border for two days, until June 12, Uzbekistan briefly allowed about 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks to enter. Two weeks later, the Uzbek and local Kyrgyz authorities used fearmongering tactics to induce the refugees to return home. They warned the ethnic Uzbeks that if they failed to vote in the constitutional referendum they would be regarded as sabotaging peace, they could permanently lose their homes to ethnic Kyrgyz people, they might lose their citizenship, and they might not be allowed ever to return to their country. Despite ongoing concerns about their safety, almost all crossed back over the border into Kyrgyzstan within several days.
Human Rights Watch also said it was concerned that ethnic Uzbek refugees who had remained in Uzbekistan after the majority returned to Kyrgyzstan on June 25 and 26 were in hiding because they feared arrest by the Uzbek authorities and called on Uzbekistan to ensure that Ethnic Uzbeks fleeing Kyrgyzstan received effective protection.
Under international law, every citizen has a right to leave their country and every person fleeing persecution has the right to seek asylum in another country. Although Uzbekistan has the right to prevent certain people from entering or remaining in Uzbekistan - including those reasonably regarded as a threat to its national security - it may not close its borders to asylum seekers fleeing directly from persecution. International law also prohibits the forcible return of refugees to persecution or torture.
"After the refugees' experience in June, ethnic Uzbeks who fear persecution in Kyrgyzstan don't know they have a right to seek asylum in Uzbekistan," Simpson said. "Both governments should act on their responsibilities to ethnic Uzbeks - the Kyrgz need to put an end to the abuses that cause the fear in the first place of persecution, and the Uzbeks need to respect the right of those who want to flee to seek aslyum."