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

Limited Refuge in Kazakstan

Arrest of leading human rights activist highlights vulnerable position
By IWPR

By Zamir Karajanov and Dilya Usmanova in Almaty (RCA No. 393, 06-Jul-05)


Amidst growing concern about the treatment of refugees from Uzbekistan


who fled to Kazakstan following the Andijan uprising, a leading Uzbek


human rights activist has been arrested by Kazak police.


Despite having been granted refugee status by the United Nations High


Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, Lutfullo Shamsuddinov was declared


wanted by the authorities in Uzbekistan, at whose request the Kazak


police picked him up.


A leading human rights activist, Shamsuddin had sought refuge in


Kazakstan for fear of persecution because he had witnessed and


reported the police shootings of demonstrators in Andijan on May 13.


"UNHCR is extremely concerned at the arrest of a refugee under its


mandate," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a July 5 press conference.


He added that forcing refugees to return to their country of origin


was a contravention of the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees.


Shamsuddinov is currently being held at police headquarters in Almaty.


The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch warned that the


Kazak authorities "seem ready to hand over a refugee to be tortured",


and recalled that Shamsuddinov's colleague Saidjahon Zainabitdinov


remained in custody in Uzbekistan, with "serious concerns about his


well-being".


For many frightened Uzbeks, Kazakstan is the obvious place to hide.


There is a long-established Uzbek community in the south, and in


recent years there has been a steady stream of labour migrants from


Uzbekistan, so an Andijan resident arriving in Kazakstan would not be


conspicuous.


However, many of the incoming refugees are worried about what will


happen to them. One ex-Andijan resident, Nodir, told IWPR that he had


not been harassed by the Kazak authorities but was still watching his


step.


Despite being on good terms with his new neighbours, Nodir avoids


telling them where he is from. "When people ask, I say I've come from


Tashkent and I'm doing business in Kazakstan," said Nodir. "My


neighbours might not understand if I told them where I have actually


come from. I would seem suspicious from the outset."


Nodir and other Andijanis, who only have Uzbek passports, were


especially unsettled when Kazak police on June 27-30 conducted another


round of "Operation Migrant", a regular sweep to pick up people


without the right residence papers. In Almaty alone, 200 Uzbek


nationals were arrested, including some who were trying to go through


the proper immigration procedures.


On July 1, the deputy head of Kazakstan's immigration police, Baltabek


Ablaev, reported that his officers were investigating two of the


Uzbeks for possible offences committed in Andijan.


Nodir believes that the Uzbek authorities are using extradition


arrangements to find and eliminate anyone who witnessed the Andijan


violence.


"It's dangerous for us to go out on the street during the day, so we


only leave our homes to go for a walk when it's dark," said Nodyr.


The Andijan residents here are afraid to go back, and some – like


Shamsuddinov - have approached UNHCR seeking refugee status. "Around


five families and about 27 people have appealed to us in connection


with the Andijan incidents," said Narasimha Rao, a senior staffer with


the UNHCR mission in Kazakstan.


The Kazak authorities have not officially acknowledged that there are


actual or would-be political refugees in the country. Kazakstan does


have procedures for granting political asylum, but immigration laws do


little to protect the rights of refugees.


"Unfortunately, in practice this mechanism does not work," said Amina


Shormanbaeva, a legal adviser with UNHCR. "I can't imagine a situation


in which Kazakstan would recognise people from Andijan as refugees."


At a press conference in Almaty on June 20, the head of UNHCR in


Central Asia, Cesare Dupont, expressed the hope that Kazakstan would


draft a new law on refugees which would bring it into line with


international standards.


In the meantime, the UNHCR mission in Kazakstan has called on the


international community, including the Kazakstan government, to


intervene and prevent the extradition of Andijan refugees back to


Uzbekistan.


But it is difficult to see how this can be achieved when the process


of applying to the Kazak government for political asylum is fraught


with so many bureaucratic obstacles. According to Shormanbaeva, the


immigration agency used "any means it could" to block requests for


political asylum.


The authorities are particularly reluctant to process applications


submitted by people from other Soviet republics, for fear of offending


the government concerned.


Rustem Lebekov, director of the Eurasian Centre for Political Studies,


explained,"We do not have a policy for recognising political refugees


– we aren't Britain or America. Kazakstan is not a country where you


can ask for political asylum."


The Andijan refugees present the Kazak authorities with a particularly


tricky problem, since taking them in might imply tacitly that


Uzbekistan persecutes its citizens for political reasons. Kazakstan is


in no hurry to damage its already fragile relations with the Uzbek


leadership.


"To call [the Andijanis] political refugees would means going against


a national ally, and the authorities do not want to spoil relations


with Uzbekistan," said Lebekov.


According to Shormanbaeva, the immigrants understand the situation


perfectly. "The refugees appeal to the UNHCR, and receive a refugee


certificate after passing through our procedures," she said.


The Shamsuddinov case demonstrates that even with UNHCR protection,


Uzbek refugees are still vulnerable to extradition requests.


According to Dilshod, another refugee from Andijan, it is better to


lie low than run foul of extradition procedures, "Many people went to


Kyrgyzstan, but things are very difficult for them there. So we tried


to come to Kazakstan, but it's not easy for us here either. Until it's


decided whether or not we will be granted refugee status, we are


forced to hide."


The names of refugees from Uzbekistan have been changed for reasons of safety.


Zamir Karajanov is an IWPR contributor in Almaty. Dilya Usmanova is


the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Uzbekistan.