GENEVA, July 27 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has started the humanitarian airlift of 455 Uzbek refugees from western Kyrgyzstan to the Kyrgyz capital, pending a further humanitarian transfer. This comes amid intensified pressure from Uzbekistan for the return of 12 among the group.
The first of the 455 refugees were airlifted on Wednesday morning from Jalal-Abad and Osh in western Kyrgyzstan to Bishkek in the north. The 12-flight transfer to Bishkek by two chartered Yak-40s is expected to continue throughout Wednesday and Thursday, ferrying 426 refugees who have been staying in Sasik camp and an additional 29 Uzbeks who have been in detention in Osh.
UNHCR has been advocating for a transfer and emergency resettlement of this group over concerns for their safety and the sensitive asylum climate in Kyrgyzstan. Upon their arrival in Bishkek, the refugees will stay at a temporary location in the capital until details of their further transfer from Kyrgyzstan have been finalised. UNHCR is currently discussing the next stage of the transfer from Bishkek with various countries, but plans are still being finalised.
Meanwhile, UNHCR has voiced serious concerns about the presence of Uzbek military troops outside the detention centre in Osh, demanding the return of 12 Uzbek detainees in particular.
The Kyrgyz authorities have assured UNHCR that the matter will be handled in an appropriate way. Kyrgyzstan is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which along with Kyrgyz national law, clearly states that refugees cannot be sent back to territories where their life or freedom would be threatened.
The Uzbek refugees fled to Kyrgyzstan following the May 12/13 events in Andijan in Uzbekistan. Over the past weeks, UNHCR has worked closely with the Kyrgyz authorities conducting refugee status determination for the group.
A team of UNHCR legal experts has concluded that 452 of the Uzbeks being transferred are considered refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention, while three who are pending status determination are of concern to UNHCR. All are in need of international protection.