ANKARA, 14 June (IRIN) - Reports out of southern Kyrgyzstan suggest that family members of Uzbek asylum seekers who fled violence in their homeland one month ago may be being used to coerce their relatives to return.
"When will we see daddy?" a young child clinging to his mother's skirt cried outside the newly established Sasyk camp in the southern Kyrgyz province of Jalal-abad, where Uzbek asylum seekers who fled violence across the border in May, now live.
But the young woman who hopes to speak to her husband - an asylum seeker from the southern Uzbek city of Andijan - concentrates on the people's faces behind the camp's fence - looking for her spouse.
"My husband was a craftsman in Andijan. We want him to return. What else can we do?" the mother-of-three, who declined to be identified, asked despairingly.
It's a question being asked by families on both sides of the 1,000 km plus border, after close to 500 Uzbeks asylum seekers fled violence in their native Andijan after government troops fired on demonstrators in the town's main square on 13 May, killing up to 1,000, according to some reports.
However, in what appears to be a concerted effort by the Uzbek authorities to bring their citizens back, family members of those seeking refugee status in the mountainous former Soviet state were reportedly being brought in by bus to coax their loved ones back.
"These are organised visits by relatives under threat by the local [Uzbek] authorities to bring back the asylum seekers," Carlos Zaccagnini, chief of mission for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kyrgyzstan, said on Tuesday from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. "We have been told by some of them that they were under threat - and they didn't want their relatives to go back because they feared the consequences."
Calling on the Kyrgyz government to provide asylum status to any visiting family member who wished to remain, Zaccagnini remarked: "The threats to the relatives on the other side are very real, telling them either you bring back your relatives or else..." he said open endedly, adding visits appeared well planned and organised with buses for family members trying to retrieve their loved ones.
"We are trying to stop the visits - full stop. This is a pressure exerted by the Uzbeks in a very rough and unlawful manner. There is a concerted effort on the Uzbek side to get everyone back and they are going to struggle to do that by whatever means - and this is one of them," the UNHCR official maintained.
Meanwhile, the 460 Uzbek asylum seekers, recently relocated to the better equipped Sasyk camp from the Barash border camp 10 days earlier, debate what to do next.
"None of my relatives have come to see me, but many in our group have been visited by relatives and friends," Shavkatbek, a 40-year-old asylum seeker remarked, noting they were closely following the latest news and developments in Andijan.
But news from across the border hasn't been good, and while some asylum seekers have packed up their meagre belongings after long, often tense, discussions with visiting loved ones, most remain determined to stay.
"I left five children, my wife and elderly parents there [in Andijan]. I am very concerned about them, but I am scared to return," Shavkatbek explained.
Many protesters and bystanders were arrested after the killings in Andijan, in an attempt to prevent witnesses to the shootings from testifying and speaking to journalists and foreigners, human rights groups say.
"We are constantly thinking about what will happen to our relatives and what is awaiting us should we return. This is what keeps our minds busy, but we don't see any way of returning for the time being," a Kibriyo, a 35-year-old woman, added.
Five days earlier, Kyrgyz local officials reportedly deported four of the asylum seekers back to Uzbekistan, an act which drew sharp criticism from both Washington and UNHCR.
"This is more than a disappointment. We have condemned this deportation which is in violation of the [refugee] convention and refugee law," Zaccagnini said.
In a statement on Friday, UNHCR called on Bishkek to halt further deportations of Uzbek asylum seekers until they had been properly processed to determine whether they were refugees under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
"This is a direct violation of an agreement UNHCR had reached with the Kyrgyz government that no one would be forcibly returned unless they had been determined not to be a refugee after going through an asylum procedure," agency spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, told reporters on Friday.
According to UNHCR, if the four men were indeed refugees instead of "criminals" as repeatedly alleged by the Uzbek authorities, then their deportation would be considered refoulement, or forcible return of a refugee under the 1951 convention, to which Bishkek was a signatory, something which was also specifically prohibited under Kyrgyz national law.
"We hope an investigation will shed some light on it. They were just sent back and the circumstances that led up to that are just not known to us," Zaccagnini said.
However, Zafar Khakimov, head of the Kyrgyz migration service maintained none of the asylum seekers had been forced to leave the country. "These men, like the other 36 people who had decided to go back to Uzbekistan, did so voluntarily, submitting their petitions that they were returning voluntarily and had no claims towards the Kyrgyz state," he said.
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