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Kazakhstan's Uzbek refugees wait in limbo

30 January 10 01:07 GMT

By Rayhan Demytrie
BBC News, Almaty

Rustam and his wife and baby share a house on the outskirts of Almaty with several other families.

"Welcome to my home," he says opening the door to the small room his family occupies.

He is an Uzbek man in his early 20s, seeking refugee status in Kazakhstan.

Rustam is not his real name. He asked that his identity be kept secret because he fears for his security.

The rent is paid by the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR. In one corner there is a makeshift kitchen. Another corner serves as a sitting area. The "bedroom" is a space behind a curtain.

Most of their belongings - a synthetic carpet, quilted blankets, an electric stove and a single cooking pan - were donated by their neighbours.

Rustam's wife offers a cup of tea, pointing to a large thermos in the corner.

"One day when Rustam went in search of money, I had nothing to eat until 4pm, I just kept drinking boiled water," says Zarina, who breastfeeds her infant son.

Rustam says he left Uzbekistan after being forced by the state security services to become an informer. He claims he was targeted because of an Islamic education he received abroad.

"Under a false pretext they took me to their headquarters, they beat me and questioned me for many hours. They said that they would let me go if I agreed to serve my country."

Rustam was told that one of his tasks would be to provide a list of people who attended prayers at mosques.

But when he received his first orders he decided to leave the country.

Religious refugees

According to the UNHCR, 82 people from Uzbekistan were granted refugee status in Kazakhstan in 2009. Another 68 cases are pending.

Kazakhstan, along with Ukraine and Russia, are the most common destinations for Uzbeks seeking political asylum.

The UNHCR says there are more than 6,000 Uzbek refugees worldwide.

The largest wave fled in May 2005, following a government crackdown on protesters in the eastern Uzbek town of Andijan.

Over 400 people fled to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and were eventually resettled elsewhere.

Today, among the top reasons listed by Uzbeks seeking asylum in Kazakhstan is religious persecution back home.

Surayo, a mother of three, has been living in Kazakhstan for almost three years. She says that back in Uzbekistan, her daughters were banned from wearing headscarves to school and police harassed those who disobeyed.

"Back at home we could not practise our religion. Most of the people come here because they are not allowed to pray and wear religious clothing."

Over 90% of Uzbekistan's 27m people are Muslims. In certain parts of the country, such as the Ferghana Valley in the east, conservative Islam is widespread. But the government only tolerates its own state-sanctioned brand.

The Uzbek authorities claim that religious extremism is one of the biggest threats to the country's stability.

But rights groups say many innocent Muslims are victimised by government purges carried out under the pretext of fighting terrorism and extremism.

Dealing with police

The Moscow-based human rights centre Memorial lists the names of about 1,400 people imprisoned in Uzbekistan between 2004 and 2008 on political and religious grounds.

"Any security incidents in Uzbekistan are followed by a wave of arrests," says Vitaliy Ponamaryov, director of the Central Asia programme at Memorial.

"After a suicide bombing in Andijan in May 2009 and a shooting incident in Tashkent in August, people accused of plotting these attacks were arrested and more names appeared on the government's wanted list."

But those who make it out of the country face further difficulties.

In December 2009, Kazakhstan adopted a new law on refugees. Many observers say it is a positive move, but the legislation does not address the most important issues faced by refugees, such as employment.

Most of the refugees have to survive on small allowances provided by the UNHCR.

Some attempt to work in markets or sell home-made pastries, but they risk being fined by local police.

And there have been other problems with the police.

Last September, several houses where Uzbek refugees lived were raided by Kazakhstan's equivalent of the KGB, the Kazakh National Security (KNB). Refugees claimed they were beaten, blindfolded and interrogated.

The UNHCR sent a formal protest note to the government of Kazakhstan calling on it to respect its international commitments to protect refugees.

But KNB spokesman Kenzhebulat Beknazarov denied any of the refugees were mistreated.

"The officers were just following the procedure and checking the documents of the refugees," he told the BBC.

Despite the difficulties, rights groups say Kazakhstan is a much safer destination for Uzbek refugees than other Central Asian countries.

"At least Uzbek asylum seekers are not kidnapped by their own security services in Kazakhstan, as has been the case in Kyrgyzstan. It is much safer for them here," says Vitaliy Ponamaryov.

Denis Zhivago, from the Kazakh bureau for human rights, points out that none of the Uzbek asylum seekers or refugees who are wanted by the Uzbek authorities on charges of terrorism has been handed back.

"The majority of refugees live in fear. They were probably intimidated back at home, and when they first arrive here they are surprised that there is much more freedom," he said.

But this message does not seem to have filtered through to Rustam.

He says even his fellow refugees do not know his real name. But he is happy for his infant son to be photographed.

"It's okay to take a picture of him. He has not done anything wrong in the eyes of the Uzbek government yet."

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