More than 400 Uzbek refugees who fled violence in their homeland two months ago were flown to Romania from Kyrgyzstan today, but the United Nations refugee agency is still negotiating with Kyrgyz authorities over the fate of another 15 amid fears they could be returned to Uzbekistan where they could face torture.
Relieved and flashing peace signs, 439 Uzbeks arrived in Timisoara, western Romania, after a seven-hour chartered flight from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, accompanied by staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration.
They included 14 who were released from detention in the Kyrgyz border town of Osh but UNHCR is very concerned about the fate of the 15 others still detained there after reports that Uzbek officials were present at the detention centre in an apparent effort to press for their repatriation, although Kyrgyz authorities have assured UNHCR they will not be deported back home.
Last night Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on the Kyrgyz authorities to facilitate their departure for Romania, stressing that “returning refugees or asylum-seekers to a country where they may face torture is a violation of international refugee and human rights law.”
UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva today that the agency was negotiating with the Kyrgyz authorities for their release.
“We have strongly reiterated to the Kyrgyz authorities that the Uzbeks in detention should not be returned to Uzbekistan, as this would be contrary to the 1951 Refugee Convention to which they have acceded, and contrary to Kyrgyz national law,” she said. “The authorities have assured UNHCR that these 15 will not be deported to Uzbekistan but kept in Kyrgyzstan for further processing.”
Fourteen others detained in Osh were released last night for today’s flight. “It was heart-breaking to see the joy on the faces of those who were released from prison when they were reunited with the families they had not seen since May,” UNHCR country representative Carlos Zaccagnini said.
UN officials from Mr. Annan on down have repeatedly expressed “serious concern” over the fate of the asylum seekers and their possible forced repatriation after they fled violence in the eastern city of Andijan in May.
Earlier this month, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted that while the Uzbek Government claimed fewer than 200 people were killed in the unrest, other sources put the death toll at hundreds more. “It is not excluded, as described by eyewitnesses interviewed, that the Andijan incidents amounted to a “mass killing,” it said.
Ms. Pagonis thanked UNHCR’s partners for their help in the airlift. “During this complex and charged transfer operation, UNHCR has received enormous support from the authorities in Kyrgyzstan, particularly the Foreign Affairs Minister, the Romanian Government, the US Government, many other governments, the EU (European Union), OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), UN sister agencies, IOM and the international community,” she said.