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

Kyrgyzstan: Uzbek Refugees Go Underground

Future uncertain for hundreds of people who fled Andijan violence still living covertly in Kyrgyzstan.
By Aida Kasymalieva

Hundreds of people who fled Uzbekistan after government troops opened fire on a protest in the town of Andijan in May may still be residing unofficially in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, local observers say.


A group of 439 Uzbeks who fled the violence have already been flown from Kyrgyzstan to Romania by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, prior to being permanently resettled in other countries.


And Bishkek has promised that a further 15 Uzbek nationals still being detained in Osh will not be forced to return home.


But local human rights activists have expressed concern about those who remain, who are not part of any visible group and appear to be avoiding contact with the Kyrgyz authorities for fear of deportation.


Edil Baisalov, head of the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, told IWPR that this group of people differ from the rest only in that they were not held in the camps set up to accommodate and process refugees fleeing to Kyrgyzstan.


“The people who are now termed ‘illegal refugees’ are just the same as those who were transferred to Romania,” he told IWPR. “It was simply that the tent camp was not able to accommodate them on May 14 [the day after the shootings].”


Alima Amanova, representing Kyrgyzstan’s human rights ombudsman in the southern Jalalabad region, had a slightly different explanation. “The UNHCR worked only with those refugees who crossed the border through the Uzbekistan village of Teshiktash,” she told IWPR. “But refugees crossed the frontier in other places as well. No one took them in, no one took care of them. That’s why they are still hiding.”


The exact number who have stayed on in Kyrgyzstan remains unclear, Baisalov said, adding, “as of today, our colleagues in the south have located about 30 refugees. We estimate that the numbers who have not been officially registered by either the Kyrgyz government or international organisations may reach several hundred.”


Azimzhan Askarov, the head of Vozdukh, a human rights group, said at least some of the unregistered refugees have already moved from the border regions to the capital Bishkek. “It is safe there for them, but it isn’t clear whether they will last long without a visa or shelter,” he said.


Some may have dispersed even further, according to Izzatulla Rahmatullaev, chair of the Osh-based human rights group Zakon i Poryadok. “Since the beginning of August, groups of people who fled Uzbekistan have been leaving Kyrgyz territory on trucks headed for Khorog and Khojent [in Tajikistan],” he said. “I witnessed a truck with over 30 refugees leaving for Khorog. It is hard to say what awaits those people in Tajikistan, where life is difficult.”


The future looks far from bright for all those who remain on the run. “They can live with their relatives at the moment,” said Valentina Gritsenko, head of the Jalalabad-based human rights organisation Spravedlivost. “But it will be cramped there in winter and they end up on the street again. They will get caught, fined for breaking the law, and deported.”


None of the refugees wants to go back to Uzbekistan. “They fear persecution by the Uzbek authorities and they cannot return home under any circumstances,” Askarov told IWPR. “Many of them participated in the May 13 rally in the centre of Andijan, while others are relatives of those refugees who have already been sent to Romania.”


According to Askarov, the group also includes some individuals who were among those freed from a prison the night before the May 13 rally. Others may have been freed from a police station where they had been taken after attending a demonstration outside a court trial in Andijan.


“I talked with a guy from Uzbekistan who has been hiding in Kyrgyzstan since May 14,” said Askarov. “It turns out he was held at a detention centre, charged with links to religious extremist organisations. He was freed on May 13 and he fled toward the Kyrgyz [border] town of Karasuu.


“He doesn’t want to contact the Kyrgyz migration service or the UNHCR office and apply to register. When our [Kyrgyz] authorities learn about the illegal refugees they will deport them immediately.”


Rahmatullaev noted similar fears among the Uzbeks. “Many ‘illegal migrants’ get in touch with me if they need something,” he said. “But they switch off their mobile phones immediately after the contact, removing their SIM-cards. And I am totally on their side, I don’t want [the calls] being somehow recorded by people from Uzbekistan.”


There are signs that these people have every reason to be concerned. Four refugees have already been handed back to the Uzbek authorities, in what the UNHCR says was an illegal move on the part of the Kyrgyz government. At a press conference in Geneva on August 12, UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told journalists that the organisation has been informed that they are in detention in Tashkent, but has been unable to visit them since they were returned on June 9.


A divisional head working in Jalalabad’s regional police department, who asked to remain anonymous, told IWPR that the police did not have specific information about any cases, “but if we find illegal migrants fleeing from Uzbekistan we should, by law, fine them in the courts and send them back. There’s a special agreement with Uzbekistan on this.”


As well as deportation itself, refugees are aware that once they are identified, their relatives will also face reprisals from the Uzbek authorities, explained Cholpon Jakupova, who heads a legal aid clinic called Adilet.


“They are afraid not only for themselves but for their relatives too,” she told IWPR. “I’ve seen myself that people from the Uzbek security services had all the data on the refugees. As soon as information gets into the hands of [Kyrgyz] officials, it gets passed over to the Uzbek side.… Obviously, refugees are afraid of this – even if they are not extradited, their relatives at home might be put at risk.”


In the meantime, any who do wish to declare their presence in Kyrgyzstan appear to have been left in a kind of limbo.


The UNHCR’s regional advisor Kirsti Floor told IWPR that while her organisation is aware that there are people hiding in Kyrgyzstan, they are unable to seek them out themselves. “We cannot look for [these people] everywhere, they should apply to us with an application for refugee status,” she said.


She acknowledged, however, that there is every possibility such people may be reluctant to show their faces in public for fear of being detained. “We understand the situation and it would be good if NGOs worked with them, because many of them don’t know where to look for assistance,” she said.


Some observers, though, have been critical of the UNHCR’s approach.


“After May 14, when a temporary camp was set up for refugees, we informed the UNHCR representatives that those refugees hiding with their relatives should also be attended to,” Amanova told IWPR. “But no one listened to us then.”


Rahmatullaev also told IWPR that when he took a number of Uzbeks to the local immigration department, he was told they were already too busy with other refugees. The same thing happened, he said, when he took them to the office of the UNHCR.


For now, human rights activists like Baisalov say the main priority is to resolve the status of the 15 refugees in detention in Osh.


UNHCR spokesperson Pagonis told journalists at the Geneva press conference that 11 of the group had already been accepted for resettlement by the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden.


Aida Kasymalieva is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL, in Bishkek. Jalil Saparov is an IWPR contributor in Jalalabad.