There still remain circumstances in Afghanistan that could trigger a mass influx of refugees to the Central Asian countries. Therefore, UNHCR is closely working with the governments in the region on developing contingency plans in case of refugee influx, which will ensure that in case of emergency those who are in need of international protection will be given access to the territory and asylum procedure, Mr. Bernard Doyle, UNHCR Regional Representative and Regional Coordinator for Central Asia, told in an interview with AKIpress.
- In what countries of Central Asia refugee issues are the most burning? How did the situation change for the last 20 years?
UNHCR opened its representations in all Central Asian countries, in the middle of 90s; after the former USSR countries gained their independence. Operating for more than 20 years countries have achieved considerable results, but some challenges also remain. The biggest accomplishment is that except for Uzbekistan, all of the Central Asian countries have acceded to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (hereinafter referred as the 1951 Refugee Convention). It means that these countries have acknowledged their primary responsibility in providing international protection to refugees and committed themselves to grant the rights that they owe to the refugees that are provided in the Convention.
Following the process of accession to the Convention, these countries have also adopted their national laws on refugees and undertook the responsibility for status determination by establishing its own procedure.
As of December 2014, there are 3, 197 refugees in Central Asia. The biggest number of refugees is hosted by Tajikistan- more than 1,900. Kazakhstan hosts 633 refugees, Kyrgyzstan -482, Turkmenistan – 35, and Uzbekistan - 125 refugees. Taking into account these figures, Tajikistan faces the biggest challenges. Access to livelihoods is a big constraint for refugees in Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan, taking into economic conditions in the country. Also, bordering with Afghanistan, the biggest refugee producing country, sets Tajikistan, wherefore is always under constant pressure of possibly receiving a mass influx of refugees.
As for other countries, relatively small number of refugees residing in the countries should not be perceived as a burden. UNHCR appeals to the governments that giving access for refugees to livelihoods will allow them to contribute to the economies of the states.
- How is UNHCR building its relationships with the governments of Central Asia, which do not recognize these problems and do not solve refugee problems? Are you contracting your efforts on working with the governments or NGOs, and do you see a potential in solving of these issues?
UNHCR is closely cooperating with the governments of all Central Asian counties, by supporting their efforts in ensuring international protection of refugees, eradication of statelessness and emergency preparedness.
UNHCR closely works with Governments so that people who are in need of international protection are given access to the territory and asylum procedure. Therefore, UNHCR conducts capacity building activities for the governmental bodies, such as Migration Police departments and border guards, eg, through training border guards, who are the first who meet asylum seekers, when they cross into the country of asylum. UNHCR underlines that in this relation it is important to understand that refugees are fleeing the country of origin because of persecution, and country which is a signatory of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees should provide access to territory and asylum procedure to those in need and ensure that they are not refouled.
Currently UNHCR focuses on working with governments to further improve practices around implementation of their national refugee laws in order that these meet international standards and fulfill their international obligations. Improved implementation of national laws and legislative changes in some countries, would include access of refugees to employment, livelihood, education and medical care. UNHCR also work closely with NGOs, represented in the region, which are helping and supporting the Office in its efforts to provide international protection and assistance to refugees and other persons of concern.
UNHCR cooperates closely with the Governments on mixed migration to ensure that people, who are in need of international protection within the mixed migratory flows given access to the territory and asylum procedure, along with the respect of their rights. Almaty process, which is used as the regional platform, gives opportunity for the governments of Central Asia and international organizations to closely work on solving the problems with the access to territory and procedure for refugees coming within the mixed migratory flows.
- What efforts does UNHCR undertake in the Fergana valley to solve the issue of joint use of the water resources?
In Kyrgyzstan UNHCR is addressing the issues of 2010 events by participating in the joint UN peacebuilding project, which aims to provide conditions for sustainable reintegration of those who was affected by conflict and displacement. UNHCR participates in variety of the activities, aimed at building the trust between communities and authorities. Recently, the issue of access to water resources became an issue in the Ferghana valley. Two of the local communities were facing the challenges of sharing the water resources and renovating the water channel. These challenges resulted in conflicts between the communities, violence and unsolved problems. UNHCR selected this case to decrease the conflict potential between two communities.
Through UNHCR’s partner, Foundation for Tolerance International (FTI), a range of meetings with representatives of ayil okmotu, members of local councils, community leaders, and staff of Water Users Association were held to analyze the situation and find a durable solution for both sides. In addition to the meetings, FTI organized a roundtable where all participants expressed their opinions and possible solutions to this situation. During these meetings it became apparent that the residents of both communities are indeed prepared to negotiate and jointly work on restoration and management of the water channel. As a result, the channel was restored, and the sides came to the jointly beneficial way of sharing water resources. Such cases show that there is a potential of solving the issues, including sharing water resources through building trust between communities and to authorities.
- What threats do you predict for your work, taking into account changing geopolitical situation in the region, in particular growth of extremist organizations?
There still remain circumstances in Afghanistan that could trigger a mass influx of refugees to the Central Asian countries. Therefore, UNHCR is closely working with the governments in the region on developing contingency plans in case of refugee influx, which will ensure that in case of emergency those who are in need of international protection will be given access to the territory and asylum procedure.
The Convention of 1951 Refugee Convention contains provisions that exclude persons, who do not deserve international protection, such as those who committed serious non-political crimes, crimes against humanity and war crimes. These persons can be identified through Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process and it is among the reasons why UNHCR strongly appeals to the government to strengthen RSD systems.
- What are the accomplishments and remaining challenges in each of the countries, which you would like to underline?
Turkmenistan achieved considerable progress in the field of prevention and reduction of statelessness. The government of the country has naturalized more than 5,000 stateless persons residing in the country and acceded to two statelessness conventions: 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and 1961 Convention on Reduction of Statelessness. UNHCR continues to advocate for accession to these Conventions to other Central Asian governments to reduce and prevent future cases of statelessness.
There are currently 3 countries in the region that benefit from the “Seeds for Solutions” project to eradicate and prevent statelessness. Kazakhstan recently conducted an identification campaign, which in identifying 1,000 persons who might be at risk of statelessness. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan undertook large exercises resulting to the identification of almost 1,500 persons with undetermined nationality in Tajikistan, and the registration of more than 6,000 persons in Kyrgyzstan, respectively.
The next step for all the countries is to find legal solutions to the existing cases, and amend national legislation to prevent news cases of statelessness. It is estimated that currently there are more than 100,000 statelessness persons reside in Central Asia, but it can be resolved in close cooperation with governments in the region.
In the field of international protection of refugees, the main achievement for the countries is adoption of the national laws on refugees. However, the laws should be amended in accordance with the international standards and usually countries are facing difficulties with implementation of the laws on practice. Currently UNHCR is mainly focused on finding durable solutions for refugees, which can be achieved only through improving the legislation up to the stage when refugees are given opportunities to access livelihood and other basic services and enjoy basic human rights.
- What are the issues your organization is currently working on in Central Asia.
Within the countries of Central Asia, UNHCR works closely with the main counterparts, such as Ministry of Interior and its Migration departments, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Emergencies, which can be named differently depending on the country. UNHCR aims at making necessary legislative amendments to national laws to meet international norms. The biggest challenge in local laws remains with the legal status of refugees, which is equal to the temporary stay of foreigners, and does not give an opportunity for legal employment, education or medical care. So, the primary goal of UNHCR is to regularize legal status of refugees, which can open opportunities for them to access to employment and sustainable livelihood and contribute to development of economy of hosting country.
UNHCR is also working on durable solutions for refugees, primarily focusing on the facilitation of voluntary repatriation and local integration.
UNHCR also continues to advocate accession to the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and 1961 Convention on Reduction of Statelessness in order to reduce and prevent future statelessness risks in Central Asian countries, along with finding legal solutions to the existing cases of statelessness in the country.
- What are the measures UNHCR is undertaking to protect Uzbek refugees from the Uzbek National Services? (based on the information that asylum seekers are being kidnapped in Russia)?
Russia is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention therefore, it has an obligation in providing international protection to refugees residing on its territory particularly in respecting principle of non- refoulement.
- Did you try to restart UNHCR activities in Uzbekistan, after March 2006, when MFA of Uzbekistan presented a notification about closure of the UNHCR office in Tashkent?
UNHCR appreciates the fact that the people and government of Uzbekistan have given protection to refugees over many years. Through our previous collaboration with the Government of Uzbekistan, solutions were found for almost 45,000 refugees since 2002. There remain only a small number of refugees currently in Uzbekistan and UNHCR lloks forward to a dialogue with the government in order to identify a way forward in this case.
- In all the CA countries you have hotlines, operating 24 hours, and the people can ask for help. What citizens of Uzbekistan or asylum seekers, who are located on the territory of Uzbekistan, should do in case of emergency?
UNHCR does not currently have a presence in Uzbekistan.
- After Andizhan events in 2005, many families became separated. Radio Svodoba informed about unification of one of such families after 7 years of being separated. Are you taking any efforts to unite such families, and how many families have already received this help?
UNHCR adheres to principle of family reunification hence, it works as much as possible towards the re-unification of refugee families, who got separated.