A total of 439 Uzbek refugees arrived in Timisoara in western Romania on Friday morning after a seven-hour chartered flight from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, accompanied by staff of UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. The group included 425 refugees who had been airlifted to Bishkek from Sasik camp in western Kyrgyzstan over the last two days, as well as 14 who were released from detention in the Kyrgyz border town of Osh on Thursday night.
"It was heart-breaking to see the joy on the faces of those who were released from prison when they were reunited with the families they had not seen since May," said UNHCR's Representative in Kyrgyzstan, Carlos Zaccagnini.
One Uzbek who had been transferred from Sasik camp decided at the last minute against going to Romania and said he wanted to return to Uzbekistan instead. He is currently still in Kyrgyzstan.
The 439 who did fly seemed happy and relieved when they landed in Romania. Some flashed peace signs at the crowd that had gathered to see them. The refugees are now in a reception centre in Timisoara run by Romania's National Refugee Office. They will stay there until procedures for permanent resettlement to third countries are finalized.
The decision to launch the humanitarian transfer was taken after several weeks of intense pressure during which some refugees and asylum seekers were detained and four were deported to Uzbekistan.
"During this complex and charged transfer operation, UNHCR has received enormous support from the authorities in Kyrgyzstan, particularly the Foreign Affairs Minister, the Romanian government, the US government, many other governments, the EU, OSCE, UN sister agencies, IOM and the international community," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva on Friday.
She added, however, that UNHCR is still very concerned about the fate of 15 Uzbeks who remain in detention in Osh, western Kyrgyzstan. "We are negotiating with the Kyrgyz authorities for their release," said Pagonis. "Eleven of the Uzbeks have already been accepted for resettlement."
She stressed, "We have strongly reiterated to the Kyrgyz authorities that the Uzbeks in detention should not be returned to Uzbekistan, as this would be contrary to the 1951 Refugee Convention to which they have acceded, and contrary to Kyrgyz national law. The authorities have assured UNHCR that these 15 will not be deported to Uzbekistan but kept in Kyrgyzstan for further processing."