Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan to Expel Uzbek Refugees

Many of the activists who helped bring current the Kyrgyz leadership to power are outraged at its decision to send refugees to an uncertain fate.
By Sultan Kanazarov

As reports came in that Uzbeks who fled the violence in Andijan just over a week earlier had been expelled from Kyrgyzstan, officials in Bishkek are starting to voice a new tougher position on the refugees.


It was not clear what prompted the apparent change of heart, though mounting pressure from an irate Uzbek government undoubtedly played a role.


Some critics felt the new stance was excessively harsh, given that the present Kyrgyz government is itself the product of popular unrest, and portrays itself as an advocate of democratic rights and freedoms.


Kyrgyzstan’s human rights ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir uulu had earlier insisted that the government had an obligation to accord the refugee status to the Uzbeks “without fear of [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov's reaction”.


On May 24, the AP news agency reported that “scores” of refugees had been forced to leave the tent camp in Suzak district, where about 500 people have been living.


Almambet Matubraimov, serving as acting president Kurmanbek Bakiev’s special representative for the south of Kyrgyzstan, was uncompromising about the decision when he spoke to IWPR, before the first actual expulsions took place.


“Following telephone conversations between the prime ministers of Kyrgyzstan [Bakiev; he is acting president ex officio] and Uzbekistan, we came to the conclusion that we would hand the Uzbek citizens located on our territory back to their authorities,” he said.


“We don’t have the conditions for keeping them, nor is there actually any legal justification for doing so. We don’t regard them as refugees since there hasn’t been a civil war in Uzbekistan, just internal disagreements which they must resolve themselves.”


Abdurakhman Abdullaev, a member of the Kyrgyz parliament who has just visited the refugee camp, painted a rosy picture of what awaited the Uzbeks, “their hearth and their work awaits them there, and they must return to their homes”.


That is not an image shared by the refugees, who have told IWPR reporters that they fear for their lives if they are forced to go back.


Matubraimov’s assertion that the Uzbeks do not qualify as refugees bears closer examination, as it appears to form the legal basis for the expulsions. As Apsabir Erejepov, deputy head of the Kyrgyz border guards service, said, “There are no grounds to give the Uzbek citizens refugee status. We border guards regard them as having violated our frontiers and we will be acting within the law when we hand them over to the Uzbek authorities.”


In fact, the people in the refugee camp did not cross Kyrgyzstan’s border defences – they are still encamped in a strip of disputed territory between the two countries.


The chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, Miroslav Niazov, was much less certain about the official status accorded to the Uzbeks.


“We haven’t yet decided either about [their] status or about whether to hand them back,” he said, speaking at roughly the same time Matubraimov said they had been defined as non-refugees.


Outside the Kyrgyz government, politicians and non-government organisations, NGOs, were aghast at the decision.


Edil Baisalov, who leads the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civic Society, said, “ “The entire human rights community is demanding that the Kyrgyz government assist all citizens of Uzbekistan.


"Dictators come and go, but peoples remain. We must work not with Karimov but with the Uzbek people."


The deputy speaker of parliament, Erkin Alimbekov, said, “Handing over the refugees the first time the Uzbek authorities request it is a violation of [our] sovereignty and interference in [our] country’s internal affairs.”


Even allowing for the allegation that there might be subversives among the refugees, Alimbekov said the right channel through which to deal with suspect individuals would be extradition proceedings. “The authorities must take a selective approach,” he said. “As a sovereign state, we don't have the right to hand over ordinary citizens.


The Kyrgyz leadership must have been aware that it would face this kind of reaction from its allies in the former opposition and in the strong NGO sector.


A senior official who asked not to be identified told IWPR that the government had opted for a pragmatic decision in impossible circumstances.


"Kyrgyzstan finds itself in a difficult situation. On the one hand, Uzbekistan is putting pressure on us, and on the other side stand all the NGOs, human rights activists and the international community," he said. "So what are we to do? Of course I’m in favour of not handing the refugees over, but that could have unforeseen consequences. Supposing Uzbek troops or police invaded our territory?”


Parliamentary deputy Marat Sultanov has considered this possibility, but insists, “that would constitute an invasion of a sovereign state.”


Sultan Kanazarov is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL. Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC correspondent in Bishkek.