Asia-Pacific

Tearful refugees 'forced' back to Kyrgyzstan

Uzbek neighbourhood in Osh
Image caption Many refugees are returning to find their neighbourhoods burned out

Makhliyo and her family packed up their belongings early in the morning and headed out of the refugee camp in Uzbekistan which had been their safe haven for the past two weeks.

They soon reached the border and crossed back into Kyrgyzstan; their homeland, but no longer the place they wish to call home.

They are ethnic Uzbeks, the minority community in southern Kyrgyzstan which bore the brunt of the violence earlier this month in which up to 2,000 people were killed and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed.

Like the other ethnic Uzbeks, Makhliyo and her family no longer believe they can live side-by-side with the majority Kyrgyz community.

The Kyrgyz stand accused of systematically driving the Uzbeks out of their neighbourhoods in the main cities, Osh and Jalalabad, in what was the worst outbreak of ethnic violence in the country's history.

Vote looms

But now Makhliyo is back in Kyrgyzstan, staying with friends in a house at the border crossing-point next to Osh, because her own home in the city was burnt down.

She and her family would not have returned of their own free will.

Instead, they say they were forced out of their camp.

"An Uzbek army officer came to our refugee camp and told us we had to leave, because the government in Kyrgyzstan wanted us back home," said Makhliyo as she sat under a tree sheltering from the midday sun.

"We cried, we didn't want to return. Our relatives had told us not to come back because it was dangerous. But the officer said the camp would close anyway."

Other refugees at the same border crossing-point told similar stories of being told to leave their camps in Uzbekistan.

And a Western official backed up the claim that the Uzbek authorities were responding to a specific request from the Kyrgyz government for the refugees to be brought back, despite the obvious dangers for them.

"The governor of Jalalabad visited the camps on Wednesday and told them to come back for the referendum [on a new constitution, due to be held on Sunday]," the official said.

"The Uzbeks then provided the transport."

Sudden surge

A senior member of the Kyrgyz government said he was unaware of the reports of refugees being forced back.

But the referendum is vital for the legitimacy of the interim government which came to power after an uprising in April against the former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

And soldiers checking vehicles at the crossing-point near Osh confirmed there'd been a sudden surge of refugees returning home this week.

On Wednesday 5,000 passed through their checkpoint alone.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has already expressed its concern, saying it is checking whether the refugees had been given the choice of staying in the camps.

The unexpected arrival of approximately 80,000 refugees in southern Kyrgyzstan, will also put further pressure on the humanitarian assistance programme in the region, which is still not providing sufficient food and other supplies for those affected by the violence.

According to United Nations' estimates, more than half a million people need assistance.

The operation has been hampered by the lack of security on the ground, but the international community has also been slow to respond.

Two weeks after the violence broke out, the UN was still flying in equipment just to set up a co-ordination centre at Osh airport.

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