Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Limited Refuge in Kazakstan
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
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
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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