UNHCR reluctantly leaves Uzbekistan after 13 years of helping refugees
GENEVA, 18 April (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency reluctantly closed its office in Uzbekistan this week, ordered by the government to leave the Central Asian country after 13 years of assisting refugees fleeing conflicts in the region.
The move on Monday followed an ultimatum by the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs in March that UNHCR close its office in Tashkent by 17 April as UNHCR had "fully implemented all the tasks mandated it, and obvious reasons for its further presence in Uzbekistan are currently non-existent."
UNHCR had expressed regret at the decision, noting that its work in the country was ongoing and many refugees continued to depend on its assistance. Under an agreement that took effect on the closing of the UNHCR office, the UN Development Programme will provide help to refugees normally given by the UN refugee agency.
"UNHCR only works in countries upon the invitation of a government and in order to support that government in refugee matters," said Ekber Menemencioglu, UNHCR's Geneva-based regional director. "So when we are asked to leave and cannot operate anymore according to our principles, we will have to go."
UNHCR began providing humanitarian assistance to refugees in Uzbekistan in 1993, opening an office because of the 1992-93 civil war in Tajikistan and war in northern Afghanistan. In recent times, the work focused on voluntary repatriation of Tajiks and Afghans, and resettlement to third countries of refugees, mainly from Afghanistan. A small number of asylum seekers from other countries also approached UNHCR's office in Tashkent over the years.
The March order for UNHCR to close said UNHCR had completed its work because war had ended in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, repatriation was over and resettlement of refugees to third countries had been successfully completed.
However, there are still some 1,750 refugees, mostly Afghans, in Uzbekistan receiving financial and medical care, education, vocational training and other assistance from UNHCR. Many still hope to return home or have been accepted for resettlement in third countries. Over the years, UNHCR had also worked to improve the skills of government officials by training them in refugee law and border management.
Following the Uzbek order to close, and with only one-month's notice, UNHCR's team in Tashkent worked non-stop to find alternative arrangements for remaining refugees in the country.
"UNHCR is fully committed to its international refugee protection principles and has done its utmost to find alternative solutions for those in need of protection," said Menemencioglu. "We are happy that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Tashkent has agreed and will be allowed under an alternative arrangement to continue providing basic care, protection and assistance to the remaining refugees recognised under UNHCR's mandate and help them return home or get resettled."
Over the past year, UNHCR has been involved in protecting Uzbeks who fled to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan following demonstrations in the city of Andijan in May 2005. UNHCR evacuated 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania. More than half of these refugees have since been resettled from Romania to third countries.
UNHCR remains however concerned about four detained Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan, two of whom were denied asylum after a Supreme Court decision in mid-February, and has called on the Kyrgyz government not to force them back to Uzbekistan. UNHCR also remains worried and hopes for the well-being of an increasing number of Uzbek asylum seekers who have been detained in Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries and forcibly returned to Uzbekistan.
Erika Feller, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, said last month the organisation was fully satisfied it had worked to fulfil its duties to protect and find solutions for refugees. "The basic principles of refugee protection will continue to guide all of our activities on behalf of refugees wherever we operate, even when this might have negative consequences on our relations with a state."
Uzbekistan is the only Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) country that is not a party to either the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. The former Soviet republic has no national legislation to guide its policy on refugees or any administrative asylum procedure.