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Central Asia: Analysis From Washington -- When Asylum Is Denied

Washington, 28 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Demonstrations scheduled to take place today (Wednesday) outside the embassies of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in the United States call attention to an increasingly serious human rights problem around the world: the denial of asylum to those who seek it and their forcible return to countries where they are likely or even certain to be persecuted.

Led by the Uyghur Human Rights Committee, the Washington demonstrators are protesting the decision of the governments of these two countries to forcibly return four ethnic Uyghur activists -- Jelil Turdi from Kyrgyzstan earlier this month and Hemit Memet, Kasim Mahpir, and Ilyas Zordun in February 1999 -- to China where they face imprisonment, torture, or even execution for seeking the independence of their national homeland.

Such actions by Astana and Bishkek violate the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. That accord, to which both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are signatories, prohibits the return of a refugee "in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, or political opinion."

Uyghur activists who escape from China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region fall into that category, international human rights groups insist. They point out that the Chinese authorities have sent in thousands of Han Chinese to the region, thereby committing ethnic cleansing by displacement.

Moreover, these groups say, the Chinese discriminate and persecute Uyghurs for their ethnic attachments and religious beliefs. And the Beijing authorities even have forced Uyghur women who have become pregnant without permission to have abortions.

Even more to the point, according to Amnesty International, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is the only part of China where political prisoners are known to have been executed during the last several years. Only two weeks ago, for example, there were reports that a court there had sentenced five Uyghur activists to death in advance of a visit by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

In both cases, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have succumbed to Chinese pressure. Beijing's representatives have repeatedly stated that "good neighborly relations" depend on precisely this kind of cooperation. And, as two relatively small countries living next to a large and powerful one, these Central Asian states obviously have concluded that they have little choice but to go along.

But around the world, governments and peoples in countries large and small appear to be increasingly hostile to asylum seekers in the post-cold war environment, and consequently, even those who may be upset by what Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are doing in this case have adopted similar tactics when those fleeing from authoritarian states apply for asylum with them.

Sometimes those who oppose offering asylum question the motives of those who seek it, viewing them as troublemakers who do not merit special protection or as greedy people who seek economic and other benefits rather than escape from oppression.

At other times, those who oppose offering asylum argue that governments should respect the right of other governments to crack down hard on those who seek independence or otherwise challenge the existing state system even if these governments use extraordinarily harsh means to do so.

And at still others, those who oppose offering asylum argue that in the post-Cold War world, asylum is no longer a necessary or even terribly useful remedy to the problems individuals face.

Combined with the xenophobia that appears to be increasing in many countries and the ability of some countries to put pressure on others, ever more governments are following the example of Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, and even more are likely to do so in the future.

Such a trend appears likely to lead authoritarian regimes to conclude that they can get away with repression. And at the same time, it may lead those who suffer under such regimes to decide that other countries will do little or nothing to help them even if, for a time, they escape that kind of rule.