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UN Urges Resettlement of Uzbek Asylum Seekers in Safe Countries

Uzbek women sit in a tent at a bleak refugee camp 40 kilometers from the Uzbek border
The U.N. Refugee Agency held an urgent meeting Friday to find countries willing to resettle some 450 Uzbek asylum seekers that are threatened with forcible deportation from Kyrgyzstan. United Nations officials and human rights organizations warn these people could face torture or death, if they are sent back to Uzbekistan.

The U.N. Refugee Agency says it told representatives from traditional resettlement countries that the 450 Uzbeks who sought asylum in neighboring Kyrgyzstan are in a precarious situation. It says emergency resettlement is needed to protect the group.

UNHCR Spokeswoman, Marie-Helene Verney says the countries, which include the United States, Sweden, the Netherlands and Australia, said they would take the request for resettlement very seriously and would get back with an answer in coming days.

Last month, Kyrgyzstan expelled four of the Uzbek asylum seekers. The UNHCR has not had access to the men since they arrived back in Uzbekistan. But, Ms. Verney tells VOA her agency received some very disturbing news Thursday from a credible source about one of the men.

"That one of the four Uzbek asylum seekers that was sent back to Uzbekistan on the ninth of June is now in a military hospital in very critical condition," she said. "From the information we have received, his condition is life threatening…So, obviously this raises even more concern for the safety of people who would be returned. And really, as far as we are concerned, we really do not think the international community can just sit there and let that kind of things happen."

The 450 Uzbeks fled to Kyrgyzstan in May during bloody riots in the Uzbek town of Andijon. Since then, the Uzbek government has been putting the Kyrgyz authorities under enormous pressure to send these people back. Uzbekistan calls them terrorists and criminals and says they should be prosecuted.

The UNHCR says the asylum seekers should not be deported before they go through a screening process to determine whether they have a well founded fear of persecution.

On Saturday, the Assistant High Commissioner, Kamel Morjane, went to Kyrgyzstan to try to persuade the Kyrgyz authorities not to return the Uzbeks. On the basis of that trip, Mr. Morjane decided that emergency resettlement was needed. He said it was not possible to guarantee the security of the asylum seekers.

UNHCR Spokesman, Ron Redmond, says the agency is especially concerned for 29 asylum seekers, who are currently in detention in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, near the Uzbek border. Since no one knows what is happening in Uzbekistan, he says the UNHCR is giving these people the benefit of the doubt and it believes they need international protection.

"But, we get, as we have throughout this situation, we get conflicting signals in Kyrgyzstan from various Kyrgyz authorities on both the national and the local level," Mr. Redmond said. "So, that is what concerns us. And, we also know that Uzbeks are coming across from Uzbekistan. Some of them are relatives of these people. Others, we do not know who they are. But, It causes us concern and we do not believe these people are safe where they are at."

Mr. Redmond says forcibly deporting the Uzbek asylum seekers is prohibited under both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Convention Against Torture.