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UNHCR launches emergency airlift to Uzbekistan

Briefing Notes, 15 June 2010

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 15 June 2010, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The first of six planned Ilyushin-76 cargo planes, each carrying 40 tonnes of UNHCR relief supplies for refugees fleeing violence in southern Kyrgystan, is scheduled to take off from Dubai tomorrow morning (Wednesday, 16 June) at 0100 hrs GMT and is expected to land at Andijan airport in Uzbekistan at 0500 hrs GMT.

The UN refugee agency offered its assistance to Uzbek authorities who are already dealing with needs of the displaced. The government in Tashkent welcomed humanitarian aid from UNHCR on Monday.

At the request of the Uzbek authorities, the first UNHCR-chartered flight will be loaded with 800 lightweight tents to meet rapidly growing shelter needs. According to Uzbek government more than 75,000 refugees have arrived from Kyrgyzstan since last Friday. UNHCR appreciates Uzbekistan's decision to receive and assist these desperate people.

The subsequent five flights will be loaded with blankets, sleeping mats, kitchen sets and plastic sheeting for emergency shelters. In total, we plan to deliver some 240 tons of humanitarian assistance from our central emergency stockpile in Dubai. Upon arrival in Uzbekistan the supplies will be loaded onto trucks and taken immediately to various sites hosting refugees in close coordination with the government.

Part of the UNHCR emergency team is travelling today in advance of these flights and includes field officers as well as experts on operations, site planning and logistics.

We are also preparing a separate airlift and deployment of emergency team to Kyrgyzstan.

UNHCR is alarmed by the rapid escalation of violence since 10 June in Southern Kyrgyzstan which has left scores of people dead and led to the displacement of an estimated 200,000 people within the country in addition to 75,000 refugees who have sought safety in Uzbekistan.

The situation in Osh and Jalalabat remains difficult with sporadic fighting and attacks on civilians, including women and children, continuing on Monday. We fear that unless peace and order is restored swiftly more people could be displaced as they flee to the countryside or try to cross the border to Uzbekistan. As part of the UN country team in Kyrgyzstan, we are appealing to halt the violence and ensure the protection of civilians throughout the country.

We are also concerned that the poor security situation in Osh, Jalalabat and other areas is impeding thorough needs assessments as well as aid deliveries. UNHCR has been coordinating the humanitarian response within the UN country team and we are stepping up our humanitarian assistance operations for displaced people. As part of the inter-agency response, UNHCR's operational focus will be on shelter and protection needs of internally displaced.

Urgent needs include food, medicine, and shelter and we need better security to ensure the safety of humanitarian staff and goods. Some food and health aid is being delivered already, but not enough aid is getting through. There are reports that displaced people near the border may be short of water and that those made homeless by violence may be without shelter.

Kyrgyzstan has requested substantive international support to address the humanitarian crisis that is evolving in its southern regions.

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The crisis in Kyrgyzstan

UNHCR was monitoring the returns of refugees and other displaced people to southern Kyrgyzstan as tens of thousands of people headed back to their communities. Violent clashes in Osh and other cities in southern Kyrgyzstan earlier this month had sent an estimated 300,000 fleeing to the countryside, while 100,000 had fled across the border into Uzbekistan.

Days after the attacks, Kyrgyz authorities were still trying to restore law and order in the south, where they reported that some 180 people were killed and 1,900 injured. Many of the internally displaced have been staying with host families with many also sleeping rough. In Uzbekistan, authorities reported more than 50 sites hosting refugees in the border provinces of Andijan, Ferghana and Namangan. Some refugees were staying in schools and other public buildings.

UNHCR has provided more than 300 tonnes of emergency assistance in a series of relief flights over the past week, working with the concerned governments and local partners in sometimes hazardous conditions.

The crisis in Kyrgyzstan

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Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

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The UN refugee agency is providing hundreds of tonnes of urgently needed relief supplies for victims in northern Pakistan. UNHCR is sending family tents, hospital tents, plastic sheeting, mattresses, kitchen sets, blankets and other items from its global stockpiles. Within a few days of the earthquake, just as its substantial local stocks were all but exhausted, UNHCR began a series of major airlifts from its warehouses around the world, including those in Denmark, Dubai, Jordan and Turkey.

UNHCR does not normally respond to natural disasters, but it quickly joined the UN humanitarian effort because of the sheer scale of the destruction, because the quake affected thousands of Afghan refugees, and because the agency has been operational in Pakistan for more than two decades. North West Frontier Province (NWFP), one of the regions most severely affected by the quake, hosts 887,000 Afghan refugees in camps.

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