UNHCR cautions that returns in Kyrgyzstan must be sustainable

A sudden increase in returns in southern Kyrgyzstan prompts a warning that returns must be voluntary and in conditions of safety

Refugees in Balti Kazyk, Kyrgyzstan, after returning from Uzbekistan.  © UNHCR/S.Schulman

GENEVA, June 23 (UNHCR) - UNHCR urged caution on Wednesday over the returns of refugees and other displaced people to southern Kyrgyzstan following reports that thousands of people were going back to their communities, with some under pressure to do so from local officials.

In a statement released in Geneva, the refugee agency applauded the efforts of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to address the needs of displaced people, but said it was essential that returns were voluntary and on the basis of people being properly informed.

"UNHCR welcomes the return of refugees and displaced people to their homes and appreciates that readmission across the Kyrgyz border is being permitted," the statement said. "Returns should be orderly, voluntary and in conditions of safety and dignity. We call upon authorities and communes to refrain from demanding return against the will of refugees and other displaced people."

UNHCR has been working with the authorities in both countries to address the needs of people displaced by violence that erupted almost two weeks ago in the southern city of Osh and surrounding areas. As well as unverified numbers of deaths an estimated 300,000 people were displaced inside Kyrgyzstan while around 100,000 fled across the border into Uzbekistan.

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, and rapidly establishing support presences at Osh airport and in the town of Jalalabad.

In its statement UNHCR underscored the importance of returnees having access to humanitarian help to enable sustainable reintegration. "We also urge that voluntary returns should happen foremost to areas that humanitarian agencies have access to," it said.