The United Nations refugee agency today started airlifting 455 Uzbeks who fled unrest in their homeland in May to the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek pending a further transfer to other countries amid intensified pressure from Uzbekistan for the return of 12 among the group.
Over the past month the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has repeatedly expressed concern at the possible forcible return of asylum-seekers to Uzbekistan, where UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has said they “may face an imminent risk of grave human rights violations, including torture and extra-judicial and summary executions.”
The airlift from Jalal-Abad and Osh in western Kyrgyzstan, where the refugees fled after riots in the Andijan region of Uzbekistan, is expected to continue throughout today and tomorrow and is to include 29 Uzbeks who have been in detention in Osh.
UNHCR has been advocating the transfer and emergency resettlement of this group over concerns for their safety and the sensitive asylum climate in Kyrgyzstan. The agency has voiced serious concerns about the presence of Uzbek military troops outside the Osh detention centre, demanding the return of 12 detainees in particular.
The Kyrgyz authorities have assured UNHCR that the matter will be handled in an appropriate way. Kyrgyzstan is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which along with Kyrgyz national law, clearly states that refugees cannot be sent back to territories where their lives or freedom would be threatened.
Upon arrival in Bishkek, the refugees will stay at a temporary location pending their transfer from Kyrgyzstan. UNHCR is currently discussing the next stage of the transfer with various countries, but plans are still being finalized.
Over the past weeks, UNHCR has worked closely with the Kyrgyz authorities conducting refugee status determination for the group. A team of UNHCR legal experts has concluded that 452 of the Uzbeks being transferred are considered refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention, while three who are pending status determination are of concern to UNHCR. All are in need of international protection.
UN officials including Secretary-General Kofi Annan have repeatedly expressed “serious concern” about the fate of the asylum seekers, and in particular, over reports of possible forced deportations to Uzbekistan.