JALAL-ABAD, 17 June (IRIN) - Uzbek asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan who fled violence across the border in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan last month are becoming the object of abuse by local people who are making the emigrants increasingly unwelcome.
"Would good people leave their homes, children, wives, husbands and parents? It means they have done something wrong and have come here," said a 25-year-old local Kyrgyz man, gesticulating and pointing accusingly at the camp of 460 Uzbeks at Sasyk Bulak in the Suzak district of the southern Kyrgyz province of Jalal-Abad. "They should be kicked out from here!"
Many local Kyrgyz - living just across the border where the camp is located - receive heavily censored Uzbek state radio and television that constantly demonises the asylum seekers, human rights activists say, accusing them of sedition, terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, charges the exiles deny. In televised statements, Uzbek president Islam Karimov has said that terrorists are among the asylum seekers, further inflaming local passions.
"The one-sided information presented by the mass media of Uzbekistan has an impact, too. Their television broadcasts cover the frontier areas of Kyrgyzstan, forming public opinion on both sides," said Abdumalik Sharipov, an analyst with a Jalal-Abad-based human rights NGO. "And there is much negative evaluation of these people in the mass media in Kyrgyzstan."
But the one-sided Uzbek news reported is having an effect on local sensibilities around the camp in Kyrgyzstan. "Is there a guarantee that the Uzbeks will not do something wrong here now and increase tension? People say there are those among them who escaped from the prison," another young man shouted. "Our lives are difficult here, there are no jobs and now these freeloaders have appeared here!"
A group of angry local residents - some armed - held a noisy demonstration on 14 June protesting against the presence of the Uzbeks. According to local law enforcement bodies, there were about 80 protestors, who insisted on having a meeting with leaders of the temporarily displaced people.
There were scuffles when Kyrgyz interior ministry troops prevented the demonstrators from approaching the camp. The protestors delivered an ultimatum to the asylum seekers: return to Uzbekistan within three days or they would be back on horses and with weapons to "sweep them all away".
A local district council member, Kochkor Turgunbaev, was among the protesters: "We suggest that the temporarily displaced people return back to their homes in and around Andijan and we offer our services as intermediaries if needed."
Representatives of the asylum seekers, who fear persecution if they go back across the border, have repeatedly declared that they would not return home to Uzbekistan under any circumstances.
Local NGOs, who have been monitoring the asylum seekers, said that intolerance towards the visitors is growing fast and that Tuesday's protest was not the first action by local residents against the fleeing Uzbeks. Earlier, groups of people from the Kara-Bulak village council, where the camp was originally placed, had also made several attempts to have the foreign citizens deported.
The camp had been moved further from the Uzbek border following recommendations from the Office for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
"The main obstacle is the local population near the asylum seekers' temporary camp. They do not want to have such neighbours," Taalai Ennazarov, head of Jalal-Abad province state administration, said. This is despite efforts by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Department for Migration and the local authorities to convince the local population to accept the asylum seekers, many of whom remain traumatised and say they were mercilessly gunned down by Uzbek security forces in and around Andijan.
Local journalists in Jalal-Abad said that a survey in regional newspapers indicated that seven out of ten people polled were in favour of sending the group of Uzbeks back, even if it meant they would be subject to abuse and imprisonment by Tashkent, keen to silence witnesses of the mass killings in Andijan, in which an estimated 1,000 died and from where independent investigators have been banned.
"Many people in southern Kyrgyzstan consider the refugees from Andijan as dangerous religious radicals and criminals - the protesters busted open Andijan prison so many of them here must be convicts, the thinking goes," Adyljan Abidov, head of a local conflict prevention NGO in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, said.
Bakhtiyar Mamajanov from the Turan Jyldyzy Association, another prominent NGO in Osh, said local resentment towards the Uzbeks was also fueled by poverty and lack of opportunity in the region "They speak about three ways of solving the problem, including their [the Uzbeks'] subsequent integration into our society, but this will increase competition on the labour and property market."
Other local people say that the asylum seekers presence in Kyrgyzstan was souring relations with Tashkent, a powerful neighbour that had to be kept happy. "The problem of the refugees, particularly when the matter is about two countries neighboring each other, will always appear as a stumbling-block in our mutual relations," Ganijan Khalmatov, a cultural activist in Osh, said.
But there is also much work to be done in Kyrgyzstan, - a signatory to most international conventions on refugees - in educating people and their leaders about international and national legislation on refugees, activists assert.
"There is a national law on refugees and there is a convention on refugees, which our country has joined. We should understand that we are obliged to observe these laws regardless of who the aliens seeking asylum in our country are," said Sharipov.
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