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Czech Republic: Central Asian Asylum-Seekers Increasing

Uzbek refugees from Andijon during a Czech-language lesson at their refugee camp in Straz pod Ralskem (file photo) (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, June 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Prague, along with thousands of refugees now living in the Czech Republic, celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20. Refugees from Central Asia are among the thousands of who have left their homes and appealed for asylum in Central Europe. RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Venera Djumataeva spoke about their situation with Marta Miklusakova, a UNHCR public information officer in Prague.

RFE/RL: It is only recently that Central Asia has become a region from which refugees have been coming to the Czech Republic. There are different reasons why people leave their homes in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Could you explain some of the main reasons that these people are making that difficult decision?

"UNHCR has not had any representation in Uzbekistan since April 2006, when we were actually asked to close down the office [there] -- which makes cooperation in the field of human rights very hard."

Marta Miklusakova: Leaving one's country and seeking asylum abroad -- especially in a country which is far, far away from your country of origin, not only geographically but also culturally or religiously -- is an extremely difficult decision to make. However, refugees do not make such decisions voluntarily but are forced to flee due to the well-founded fear of persecution. And such persecution can be based on the refugee's religion, race or nationality, political opinion, or belonging to a particular social group. Especially when coming on an individual basis, contrary to situations of mass influxes -- let's say, from countries which may face war conflicts, etcetera -- the reasons of each refugee may differ tremendously. In general, however, we may expect mixtures of all the reasons -- meaning persecution based on a person's either religion, nationality, political opinion, or, in some cases, race or belonging to a social group.

RFE/RL: So there are no refugees from Central Asia coming for economic reasons?

Miklusakova: Should there be refugees or asylum seekers coming purely for economic reasons, then the asylum procedure would actually point that out. And such an application would most likely be rejected, because asylum is not meant for people with economic reasons -- whether or not they can be considered legitimate. But in cases of economic reasons, people need to seek other ways to legalize their stay in the Czech Republic. Not asylum. So the people granted asylum, it can be said, these people have been granted that status based on persecution in the country of origin....

RFE/RL: How many of these new Central Asian refugees were fortunate enough to be granted political asylum in the Czech Republic?

Miklusakova: For a long time, the Czech Republic has been known for its low recognition rate -- which is actually the proportion between the number of people seeking asylum and people obtaining asylum after all, at the end of the asylum procedure. In 2006, the situation changed. And actually, for the first time, we saw quite a significant increase of the proportion in favor of the people granted asylum, which increased to some 10 percent of all the applications. But speaking about the Central Asian post-Soviet Muslim countries, in concrete numbers, the Czech Republic in 2006 registered over 230 new applications from Kazakh asylum seekers, while at the same time, the Czech Republic granted asylum to some 30 applicants coming from Kazakhstan. Speaking of Kyrgyzstan, there were 85 new applications lodged in 2006, while only five Kyrgyz applicants managed to receive asylum. At the same time, we saw two applicants from Turkmenistan newly applying for asylum last year, and one asylum seeker from Turkmenistan was granted asylum. We also saw 25 new applications from Uzbeks, while two persons from Uzbekistan were granted [asylum]. And you know statistics can be very tricky, so these numbers should not be read like "two out of 25" or "30 out of 230" because the people granted refugee status last year had applied long before then. These numbers need to be read carefully, but I think they can provide a rough idea of the numbers.

RFE/RL: The number of refugee applications from Kazakhstan is surprisingly high. That is a country which is considered to be comparatively politically stable. And economically, it is more or less a successful country. What is the most common reason for their decision?

Miklusakova: In the past five or six years, the numbers of applicants coming from Kazakhstan have been much higher than from the other countries. And actually, many of them may be coming as family members of people who have already been granted asylum. So these may be people coming for the purpose of family reunification, actually. This may make some change in the numbers. But also I would say, in general, that if people spread around the good news of finding safe haven in a certain country in Europe or anywhere else, it may be also the reason why more people are likely to come here because there is already a well-established Kazakh community in this case.

RFE/RL: You just mentioned the issue of family reunions. Two weeks ago, your organization helped to reunite [three] Uzbek families. After two years of being separated, these Uzbek refugees finally were able to see their children, their wives, or husbands again. How do you cooperate with the Central Asian governments in human rights matters? Are they cooperative or do they completely resist recognizing these people as refugees?

Miklusakova: Regarding the family reunification, we are very glad that in close cooperation with the Czech Interior Ministry as well as the International Organization for Migration, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees managed to have these families reunited after, actually, more than two years. As you can imagine, this is not an easy thing to do. And also, it is not an easy decision to make for the people concerned -- be it the refugees who already came to the Czech Republic in 2005 asking their family members to come, or the family members in Uzbekistan making the decision to go and follow their husbands or wives. But governments, in general, do not assist their own refugees. On the contrary, many try to make their lives very difficult -- even after these people flee abroad. Moreover, UNHCR has not had any representation in Uzbekistan since April 2006, when we were actually asked to close down the office [there] -- which makes cooperation in the field of human rights very hard. We remain concerned about the numerous refugee communities remaining in Uzbekistan, for example, because there are still some Tajiks but also some Afghans who would otherwise fall under our mandate. And they are staying in Uzbekistan. And we can't really assist them. So, since April 2006, it is the UN Development Program providing basic assistance to the people instead of UNHCR. But the cooperation [with the government of Uzbekistan] is extremely difficult.

RFE/RL: According to the UNHCR's information, there are already more than 100 citizens from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia who have found a new home in the Czech Republic. How do you help these new refugees to integrate into Czech society?

Miklusakova: By the end of 2006, the Czech Republic provided protection -- really gave asylum -- to some 130 refugees coming from the post-Soviet Central Asian republics. Applicants from these countries are a rather new phenomenon of the past few years. We saw only a very few of them in early 1990s. They only started coming from, let's say, 1999 or 2000 on. But once granted asylum, these people are treated the same way as all the other refugees -- which actually means they have access to the so-called state integration program run by the Interior Ministry and which aims to facilitate the refugees' access to housing, employment, and Czech-language training. However, this program still has some serious gaps, and its practical implementation faces serious shortfalls. So we are actually glad the [Czech] government reviews the program on an annual basis and is more or less open to introduce changes. As of July this year, the number of hours of Czech-language training has been radically increased to 650 hours of classes of Czech -- which should satisfy any refugee. But besides the assistance provided by the state administration, the refugees are also regularly assisted by numerous local nongovernmental organizations which, also with UNHCR assistance, can provide social and legal aid to all of them on an individual basis.

RFE/RL: Before joining the EU, the Czech Republic had one of the lowest rates of granting asylum to refugees -- around 1 percent of all applicants. The Czech government also has been criticized in regard to the living conditions for refugees. Have there been any changes in the situation since the Czech Republic became an EU member?

Miklusakova: We saw some substantial changes for the first time last year, in 2006. Because for a long time, the Czech Republic has been known for [having a] very low recognition rate -- meaning a very low number of asylum seekers who actually really succeed in the procedure and obtain asylum. For many years, the recognition rate was, according to some estimates, between 1 and 2 percent -- which is very low, especially in comparison with other EU countries, where the recognition rate is usually estimated to be something in between 10 and 15 percent. But last year the situation changed, and for the first time we saw an increase to 10 percent in terms of asylum; and more people were granted other forms of international protection, especially the subsidiary protection. So the Czech Republic is on track.

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