Assistant High Commissioner Morjane pledges international support for Kyrgyzstan's continued protection of Uzbek asylum seekers
27 June 2005
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan - Ending a high-level visit to Kyrgyzstan, Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees Kamel Morjane urged Kyrgyz authorities on Monday to continue offering protection to 444 Uzbek asylum seekers, and promised generous and targeted international support to the government to help in this task. He also deplored the forcible expulsion on 9 June of four asylum seekers to Uzbekistan, and warned the authorities that further violations of international law would not be tolerated.
Morjane travelled to Kyrgyzstan on Saturday at the behest of Secretary-General Kofi Annan and High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres amid mounting international concern over the plight of nearly 500 Uzbeks who had fled to that country in the wake of the 13 May Andijan killings. During his visit, Morjane met with the asylum seekers in Sasyk. He also held meetings with senior Kyrgyz officials, including Acting President Kurmanbekr Bakiev, Foreign Minister Roza Atunbaeva and National Security Council Secretary Niyazov.
The Assistant High Commissioner voiced his appreciation and sympathy for the Kyrgyz, who received the Uzbeks during a sensitive transitional period following a change of regime, and shortly before general elections. Recognizing the difficulties faced by the government in protecting the group, he offered UNHCR's unwavering support in finding an appropriate solution in line with international norms. He noted that accelerated refugee status determination procedures were in place, and undertook to further increase their pace.
However, Morjane warned that international understanding did not extend to actions taken in defiance of international law, and reiterated High Commissioner Guterres' pronouncement that there was a red line beyond which the authorities should not venture. This would apply in particular to forcible return, or refoulement, which is prohibited under both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Convention Against Torture. Kyrgyzstan is a signatory to both instruments.
The expulsion on 9 June of four asylum seekers to Uzbekistan was a serious violation of this principle, and remains of serious concern because no international entities have been allowed access to the four. As the wife of one of the four tearfully told Morjane, their fate is unknown. The Assistant High Commissioner discussed this issue with the authorities, who condemned it and promised to investigate the circumstances surrounding it.
President Bakiev reiterated to the Assistant High Commissioner his pledge to not forcibly return any genuine refugees to Uzbekistan. Morjane welcomed this reaffirmation, but stressed that the refugee determination process needed to be fair and transparent, and with the possibility to appeal decisions.
All traditional durable solutions options - voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement - should be explored. However, UNHCR could not support voluntary repatriation in the absence of guarantees for the safety of returnees, which would include international access to areas of return. While UNHCR welcomed a suggestion to explore a tripartite repatriation mechanism together with Uzbekistan, it stressed that Uzbekistan would have to demonstrate its good faith by allowing such access before this could be seriously considered.
Visiting the Uzbek asylum seekers in Sasyk, Morjane was struck by their precarious condition. While their material needs were taken care of, their personal security was under imminent threat. Uzbek security forces appeared to have access to the site, and rumours from several quarters indicated that these forces were planning to storm the Osh detention centre in order to nab 29 asylum seekers detained there.
In light of such conditions, Morjane broached the possibility of emergency resettlement to third countries. He promised the Kyrgyz authorities that he would raise this with likely resettlement countries, including during a meeting with ambassadors in Bishkek.
During his meeting with the asylum seekers, Morjane was impressed by their sincerity and peaceableness. While he could not exclude that a minority may have committed violent acts, both his impressions and the status determination interviews to date would seem to confirm that the vast majority of this group can be considered refugees.
High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour last week issued a statement asking Kyrgyzstan not to send anyone back to Uzbekistan without following a proper status determination procedure. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also made statements of concern on behalf of the group.