Bishkek faces a difficult decision regarding the legal status of refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan on May 13-14 following the riots in Andijan, Uzbekistan. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expects the Kyrgyz leadership to comply with international standards and assign the Uzbek immigrants an official refugee status. Uzbekistan’s government is demanding repatriation of its citizens, while Kyrgyz NGOs are calling for the government to rush the decision and follow the recommendations of international experts. Finally, residents of Jalalabad, living close to the refugee camp, worry that the Uzbeks are mostly criminals who escaped when the Andijan jail was liberated and who will inevitably bring instability in Kyrgyzstan. While all parties deploy their strong reasons and convincing arguments to voice concerns about Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz government is playing for time.
In total there are 426 citizens of Uzbekistan residing in the refugee camp in Jalalabad. All of them received identification documents and are waiting for the official refugee status that would allow them to leave the camp and apply for Kyrgyz passports. Around 30 people from international organizations and local experts work with each refugee to examine their political situation. Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov implicitly made it clear that he considers the Andijan refugees to be criminals. Some Uzbek legislators have openly warned that Kyrgyzstan should not try to undermine its bilateral relations with Uzbekistan for the sake of several hundred refugees.
Uzbekistan’s government officially insists on sending back more than 100 escapees to face charges of terrorism. After repatriating four refugees wanted by the Uzbek government two weeks ago, Bishkek was harshly criticized by international observers, local NGOs, and the Uzbek opposition. The Kyrgyz security service sent 29 people accused of organizing riots in Andijan on May 12-13 to the Osh prison (Fergana.ru, June 24). When the Kyrgyz side decided to return these convicts to Uzbekistan, it was assailed by criticism internationally and domestically. As a result, neither the 29 imprisoned, nor the additional 56 people who were suspected in criminal charges, will leave Kyrgyzstan.
According to Kyrgyzstan Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov, the question of further extradition of Andijan refugees, including imprisoned convicts, will be discussed among the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry, UNHCR representatives, and the Uzbek security structures. “We are in a tough position. We have difficult neighbors. We want to remain friends with Uzbekistan. But we are under international pressure as well,” says Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva (Akipress, June 28). She also stressed that future skirmishes are possible in Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz government must do everything it can to prevent destabilization in the region. One of the ways to alleviate tensions between Bishkek and Tashkent and to calm Jalalabad residents is to send refugees to a third country, Otunbayeva argued (Azattyk, June 28).
Jalalabad residents worry that Uzbek immigrants might spread religious radicalism in Kyrgyzstan. Many doubt that the Uzbeks escapees were innocent, ordinary citizens. Summing up a popular sentiment, one young man told a Kyrgyz newspaper, “Could a good man abandon his homeland, leave behind his children, wives and husbands, parents?!” (Vecherny Bishkek, June 25). While some Kyrgyz demand the Uzbeks be deported to a third country or a neutral territory, others think that the refugees must stay under firm control and not be allowed outside the camp. But the local mood is getting angrier by the day; there are rumors that some Uzbeks are associated with the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Party of Liberation. Amid widespread poverty and unemployment in southern Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbek refugees hosted in camps are deemed to be free riders.
According to Kyrgyz NGOs, the Uzbek security service regularly sends buses to Kyrgyzstan loaded with relatives of the refugees, who are under orders to take their family members back to Andijan, using violence if necessary. Tolekan Ismailova, director of Civil Society Against Corruption, says that Uzbek law-enforcement agencies are trying to misinform the refugees by promising them safe return to Andijan and a bleak future if they remain in Kyrgyzstan (Fergana.ru, June 24).
Meanwhile, in addition to Andijan refugees in the Jalalabad camp, there are numerous Uzbek citizens in southern Kyrgyz cities who fled from Andijan and Pakhtaabad to their relatives’ homes in Kyrgyzstan on May 14. The precise number of unregistered Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan is unknown. As director of the Human Rights Monitor Program Vitaly Ponamoryev suggests, the position of Uzbek refugees outside the camp is even less stable, and most of them have given up the idea of returning to Uzbekistan (Fergana.ru, June 24).
There is no easy solution to solve the problem of the Andijan refugees. With days left until the July 10 presidential election, the Kyrgyz interim government must satisfy the UNHCR, the Uzbek government, and the local electorate with a balanced decision. Acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev needs both international recognition and domestic support to score votes on July 10. The decision on refugees will likely be delayed until a new president is elected, as there is no easy choice for Bakiyev’s government at the moment.
If the Kyrgyz leadership follows the demands of the international organizations, it will join a Western-driven, anti-Karimov campaign. However, such a position is rather inconvenient for the interim government in the near future. It is unclear how long the Karimov regime, which is economically and militarily superior to Kyrgyzstan, will remain in power. But disagreeing with the Uzbek leader will only harm bilateral relations.