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Kyrgyzstan: UN Seeking To Relocate Uzbek Asylum Seekers To Third Countries

Uzbeks at the Suzak refugee camp in Kyrgyzstan on 28 June The United Nation's refugee agency, the UNHCR, is calling for hundreds of Uzbek asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan to be relocated to third countries as soon as possible. It says the move is necessary because the safety of the refugees cannot be guaranteed. The call comes amid mounting international concern over the forced deportation of some of the asylum seekers, who fled violence in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon on 13 May. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says he has been assured by acting Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev that Bishkek will in future strictly apply international laws regarding the more than 400 refugees.

United Nations, 28 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The plea of one elderly Uzbek man living in the Suzak refugee camp in Kyrgyzstan's southern Jalalabat region epitomizes the plight of many who fled violence in eastern Uzbekistan in mid-May.

"You can shoot me if you want, but don't send me out of here," he told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "I lost my eldest son, My four grandchildren are left orphans. My son was shot dead. What can I do now? What? Where can I go?"

At least four Uzbek asylum seekers were forcibly handed over to Uzbek authorities on 9 June under pressure from Tashkent. Their fate remains unknown despite refugee and rights groups' requests for information from Uzbek authorities.

The UN's top official for refugees, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, has reaffirmed his agency's determination not to let any more Uzbek asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan be forcibly returned.

"I'd like to make an appeal to the Kyrgyz government not to [repatriate] the 29 detainees which are now being subjected to a refugee status examination [by the UNHCR]," Guterres said. "I appeal to all governments to face the situations abiding to international law, giving a chance for refugee status examination, and acting according to the rules of which we, as UNHCR, are supposed to be the guardians."

Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov has threatened to hand the 29 asylum seekers over to Uzbek authorities. Tashkent accuses them of participating in the uprising in Andijon last month. Uzbekistan has not allowed an independent inquiry into those charges, however.

Some local residents in southern Kyrgyzstan said they believe the refugees pose a security threat. Correspondent Elmurod Yusupaliev of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service spoke to one such resident, a young Kyrgyz man who said he would like to see the refugees returned to Uzbekistan.

"They are bad people," said the young man. "Maybe they want to settle down here and then overthrow Kyrgyzstan, too. If they go back [to Uzbekistan], they are going to be imprisoned. We should make them go, even by using force."

UN Secretary-General Annan said on 27 June that he has received assurances from acting Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev that all remaining Uzbek refugees will be treated in accordance with the 1951 UN convention on the status of refugees:

"I also spoke to the president of Kyrgyzstan, who gave me the indication that he would want to settle the issue with respect for the international law and the [UN refugee] convention, and he was looking toward working out a solution with Kamel Morjane, the deputy high commissioner for refugees within Kyrgyzstan today," Annan said.

Kyrgyzstan is a signatory of the UN convention on refugees. The convention states that no refugee should be forcibly returned to his or her country of origin if there is a sufficient ground to believe they will be subjected to torture, imprisonment, or death.

The UN's deputy commissioner for refugees, Kamel Morjane, ended a three-day visit to Kyrgyzstan on 27 June. At a news conference in Bishkek, he pledged to support the Kyrgyz government's efforts, but warned that further violations of international law -- such as the 9 June forced repatriations -- will not be tolerated.

Guterres on 27 June also said there is a "red line" the Kyrgyz authorities should not cross.

He also touted his agency's qualifications and experience in examining the status of refugees:

"If there is something in which we, I think, have clear experience and a clear capacity, [it] is in refugee-status examination, which means dealing with it in the most different circumstances," Guterres said. "But let me be very clear. We have to make sure that protection is given according to the [UN refugee] convention. And protection given according to the convention, of course, as you know, the exception in situations in which someone has committed serious crimes before entering in the country of asylum."

There have been reports that Uzbek security agents have been allowed into Kyrgyzstan to search for asylum seekers. The UN says Uzbek authorities have also transported relatives of asylum seekers from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan in an effort to convince their family members to return.

Guterres said these reports are causing great concern and that his agency will seek to resettle those exposed to the greatest risks to third countries after their refugee status is determined:

"I am extremely worried, and one of the things that we should try in the next few days is to see after the refugee status examination [is concluded] to find a resettlement solution for the most threatened groups," he said.

The UNHCR says talks are being held on the subject with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.

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