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

Limited Refuge in Kazakstan

Arrest of leading human rights activist highlights vulnerable position

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


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


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


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


"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


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


"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.

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