Human Rights Watch: Do Not Close U.N. Refugee Office

From HRW

(New York, March 21, 2006) ‘ The Uzbek government’s closure of the U.N. refugee agency in Tashkent will deprive refugees in Uzbekistan of international protection and set a terrible precedent, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the Uzbek government to reverse its decision.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated yesterday that on March 17, the Foreign Ministry ordered it to close its office in Uzbekistan within one month, claiming that UNHCR was no longer needed in the country.

‘Uzbekistan is one of the few countries ever to kick out UNHCR,’ said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. ‘If a government can get away with expelling UNHCR every time it objects to the agency assisting its nationals abroad, the international refugee protection regime will fall apart.’

UNHCR in Uzbekistan has worked for years with Afghan refugees who fled their country and came to Uzbekistan seeking safety.

The leadership at UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva ‘ not its Tashkent office ‘ organized an airlift to Romania for 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan following the May 13, 2005 massacre in the Uzbek town of Andijan. UNHCR resettled the refugees because of persistent Uzbek pressure on the Kyrgyz government and on the refugees themselves for their return.

The Uzbek government continues to seek the capture and return of people who fled Uzbekistan after the Andijan massacre. It has accused refugees and asylum-seekers of involvement in the Andijan uprising, or charged them with religion-related offenses. To the Uzbek government’s consternation, UNHCR offices in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other countries have granted international protection to many of these individuals. Nonetheless, since the Andijan massacre, several dozen Uzbek refugees and asylum seekers have been detained in these countries. At least 23 have been forcibly returned to Uzbekistan in violation of international prohibitions on the return of refugees and asylum-seekers to places where they could be tortured or otherwise persecuted for their beliefs.

‘Closing down UNHCR in Uzbekistan looks very much like retaliation for its work to protect Uzbek refugees abroad,’ said Roth, ‘but those who will pay the price are refugees from other countries who have sought asylum in Uzbekistan.’

UNHCR’s role inside Uzbekistan has been to assist refugees from other countries, in particular some 2,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, thus relieving the Uzbek government of much of the burden of caring for them.

‘The government utterly fails to understand UNHCR’s humanitarian role in protecting refugees and providing for their well-being,’ said Roth. ‘The U.N. should take this up at the highest level, and press the Uzbek government to reverse its decision immediately. And it should have the support of member states of UNHCR’s Executive Committee in doing so.’