Uzbek refugees living in Kazakhstan’s biggest city, Almaty, say they had a rude awakening on the morning of June 9, when law-enforcement officers carried out a coordinated raid that resulted in the detention of dozens of men.
“We were asleep – and [when we woke up] they were standing right over us,” the wife of one detained man told EurasiaNet.org on June 10, the day after her husband was taken into custody, where she said he remains with over 20 others.
“We did not even have our headscarves on,” added a young woman in a brightly colored niqab. Like many of the refugees interviewed, the woman declined to identify herself for fear of reprisals. “We were all afraid.”
As the women spoke, they were standing with around 60 other Uzbek refugees in a shady alleyway outside UN offices in Almaty, where they have gathered each day since the detentions in the hope of receiving news of the detainees. Relatives fear the men may be deported to Uzbekistan, where rights activists say they would face the risk of torture. The case, then, has the potential to become an embarrassment for Kazakhstan, which in 2010 is serving as the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Europe’s foremost democratization organization. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
The women – some wearing niqabs covering their faces and mouths, others swathed in hijabs covering their heads – sat on benches as their children played nearby and a group of men discussed the plight of the detainees. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one young man wearing a black and white Uzbek tyubeteyka skullcap recounted how he was taken into custody at 6 am on June 9 with over 40 other Uzbek males, held for several hours for screening and then released. Some refugees said law-enforcement officers seized books and computers from their homes.
The refugees who gather outside the UN office in Almaty vigorously deny that they are religious extremists. They insist they were forced to flee Uzbekistan due to persecution for their religious beliefs. “We have not even broken any laws in Uzbekistan, we just pray,” said the woman in the brightly colored niqab. Tashkent may accuse refugees of being “Wahhabis or terrorists” to achieve their extradition, another added.
The refugees and the UNHCR say 25 men remain in custody. One unconfirmed report indicated that another Uzbek man was detained on the evening of June 11. It was impossible to verify independently how many men were still in custody and what they were suspected of since Almaty’s central police precinct referred EurasiaNet.org’s inquires to the migration services and the migration services referred them back to the police.
The detentions appeared to be part of a crackdown on illegal migrants launched on June 9, though the refugees say they have UNHCR refugee status and are registered with the police.
Uzbek refugees who spoke to EurasiaNet.org said that anyone deported by Astana back to Uzbekistan could expect to meet a grim fate. “They will be tortured,” said a woman in a black niqab. “They will come out of jail as corpses.”
The UNHCR said in a June 11 statement that its representatives had “immediately contacted the Government authorities reminding them of their international obligations.” The statement went on to say that UNHCR “has received assurances that refugees and asylum seekers who bear proper registration documents issued by the Department on Migration will be released.”
UNHCR representatives also said they are holding ongoing talks with authorities on creating arrangements that would prevent further incidents. In addition, the UN agency has called on refugees to comply with new registration rules.
Observers noted that the roundup of Uzbek refugees coincided with the holding of the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Tashkent. The SCO – which groups Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – has made fighting extremism a cornerstone of its mission. Rights groups are concerned that authoritarian-minded states are using this as a pretext to crack down on political dissent – especially given the fact that regional leaders are jittery following last month’s violent overthrow of the president in Kyrgyzstan.
“I have been living in Kazakhstan for three years and this has never happened before,” a young man in a baseball cap said. “We are definitely afraid – [law-enforcement officers] are openly saying they will deport [refugees].”
As a signatory to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Kazakhstan is committed to a principle known as non-refoulement, which prohibits deportations to states where individuals may face torture, or threats to life or freedom.
However, rights groups are concerned that regional agreements to which Astana is party may take precedence over international agreements. A report in October 2009 by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights [FIDH] pointed to two such agreements: the CIS Minsk Convention obliging member states to extradite individuals wanted by other members; and the SCO’s Astana Declaration, which commits member states to extraditing terrorism, separatism and extremism suspects.
Rights activists accuse Tashkent of invoking the bogeyman of extremism to suppress dissent, and say Uzbekistan has become increasingly assiduous in pursuing Muslims who practice Islam outside state-sanctioned mosques. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Tashkent counters that it faces a real threat of Islamic extremism, which, in turn, could potentially destabilize the whole region.
In November 2007 the UN Committee against Torture expressed concern about “numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations concerning the routine use of torture” in Uzbekistan. Tashkent denies any systematic abuse. In its 2009 report, the committee voiced concern about the possibility of the forced returns of refugees from Kazakhstan. It called on Astana to ensure that no one is extradited to a country where they may face torture.
The global watchdog group Human Rights Watch is also urging Astana not to return Uzbek refugees. In a telephone interview, Andrea Berg, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, stressed that Kazakhstan, as the current OSCE chair, “should especially be a role model.” Berg also emphasized that Uzbekistan “is a country where torture is systematic.”
Representatives of the Labor and Social Protection Ministry, under whose remit refugees fall, could not be reached for comment, but officials in the past have vigorously defended Kazakhstan’s record. At an OSCE meeting in May 2009, for example, the ministry’s executive secretary, Tamara Duysenova, said Kazakhstan was “consistently meeting its international commitments with respect to refugees.”
As of late 2009, 622 people had been granted refugee status by the Kazakhstani authorities, most from Afghanistan. The FIDH says it is practically impossible for CIS citizens to be granted refugee status by Astana; instead, they seek UNHCR refugee status and then resettlement in a third country.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.