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Iran: Uzbek Refugees Facing Uncertainty, Fear

Uzbek refugee childern in the Iranian city of Zahedan (file photo) (RFE/RL) Uzbek refugees who fled to Iran in the 1990s following a crackdown on religious Muslims by Uzbek authorities now find themselves in limbo. They fear prosecution if they returned to Uzbekistan, while the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) has not yet processed their applications for political asylum.

Prague, 30 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Bahrom is one of 37 refugees living in the town of Varamin near the Iranian capital Tehran. There are eight other men, seven women, and 21 kids at the camp, where they have been living since August.

Speaking to RFE/RL from Varamin, Bahrom says most of children, aged between 18 months and 12 years, have been sick since winter started.

“The conditions in the refugee camp are not good," Bahrom said. "There are no windows and doors in the building where we stay. The food is also bad. The children are sick. They became sick as the weather became colder. No doctors have visited us. We eat once a day. Usually, it’s boiled rice.”

Bahrom and his companions in Varamin are a part of a larger group of Uzbeks in exile in Iran, with others living in the cities of Zahidan and Mashhad. Most of the refugees left Uzbekistan in 1990s. Some did so after joining the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

Uzbek authorities consider the IMU a terrorist organization. So does the United States, which included it on its list of terrorist organizations in 2000. The IMU is believed to have had close ties with Afghanistan’s Taliban. Its fighters launched raids into southern Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in the summers of 1999 and 2000.

After U.S. forces started bombing Al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, Bahrom and others fled to neighboring Pakistan and then to Iran.

Bahrom and others refugees believe they are likely to face prosecution in Uzbekistan if they return, although they deny participating in IMU’s military operations.

Harsh Living Conditions

Bahrom says that the living conditions of the refugees are harsh.

“There was a pregnant woman among [the refugees]," Bahrom said. "She suddenly felt ill. We took her to hospital. She was operated on and the baby was born dead. She suffered a lot, but they didn’t take a good care of her. We went to the UN and asked them or Doctors Without Borders to help, but to no avail."

The refugees were asked to pay $300 for the woman’s medical treatment. Jobless and poor themselves, they had to borrow the money from Iranians living near the refugee camp in advance payment for housework.

Poor Access To The Camp

The UNHCR has been involved in the process. Astrid van Genderen Stort, the Geneva-based agency’s spokeswoman, tells RFE/RL that the issue of Uzbek refugees has been considered by the UNHCR and the Iranian authorities. She says the UN’s agency has not been given access to the refugee camp.

“The UNHCR has not had very much access to the people, so it’s quite difficult to know the exact conditions," she said. "I think conditions are not very good. We’ve managed to interview people for status determination. That’s the access we had. A while ago, a doctor was sent to deal with a pregnant woman there. But in recent days, as far as I’ve been informed, no one has been able to visit them."

Forty-four-year-old Bahrom is the oldest person in the Varamin camp. While speaking to RFE/RL on behalf of his fellow refugees, he chooses his words carefully. He wants to express the refugees’ mistrust in the UNHCR without jeopardizing their chances of being granted the status of asylum seekers by the UN agency.

Mistrust Of The UNHCR

He says local UNHCR officials in the Pakistani city of Peshawar had told them that their cases were being considered in Geneva. But on contacting the organization’s office in Islamabad, they learned this was not the case. Thus, the mistrust.

Van Genderen Stort says the UNHCR has been in contact with the UN and government officials in other countries.

“Their case is a bit more complicated, " Van Genderen Stort said "They passed through a lot of different countries. So different countries have to be contacted and their background stories have to be double-checked. I only know they were there [in Pakistan] and then continued their journey on to Iran. I don’t know why they left Pakistan, but these are really questions that have been asked by our teams of interviewers.”

UNHCR officials did not know how and when the fate of Uzbeks living in exile in Iran would be resolved. Van Genderen Stort said that it may take a long time, but added that the agency has made the issue a priority.