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Uyghur minority fear deportation to China

Someone knocked on the door, and a small child immediately became silent, ran to her father and anxiously looked at him. "I am afraid to leave the house even to buy bread; it is not safe for me. The Kyrgyz and Chinese governments enjoy good relations, and there have been cases where Uyghurs were secretly returned to China," the man, an ethnic Uyghur who came to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek to seek asylum, told IRIN. He is not alone. There are some 50,000 Uyghurs living in Kyrgyzstan - with unofficial estimates putting their numbers at nearly double that. An ethnic Turkic group living in the northwestern region of modern China - estimated at some 10 million - Uyghurs have long complained of persecution. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, five newly independent states emerged in Central Asia, stimulating what China has viewed as a separatist movement among the ethnically-related Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. But Beijing cracked down on what it saw as Uyghur nationalism (officially termed separatism by the Chinese government), including peaceful religious activity, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Coalition website. Beijing has also repressed all forms of political dissent, such as criticism of the government's abuse of religious and cultural freedoms, activists say. The result has been an exodus of Uyghur people into neighbouring republics - including Kyrgyzstan. But Uyghur community leaders in the mountainous former Soviet republic told IRIN that there status in the country was tenuous at best. Compared to other Central Asian republics, Kyrgyzstan has a favourable policy towards refugees and asylum-seekers. According to official statistics, Kyrgyzstan hosts more than 7,300 refugees, including 6,500 Tajiks, more than 700 Afghans and a few from other countries. In addition, the country hosts at least 700 asylum-seekers. But observers say Bishkek is less disposed to asylum-seekers who have fled from states with which it has friendly relations. Although Bishkek is a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and has adopted national legislation on refugees, Kyrgyzstan does not grant asylum to Uyghurs, because of a number of bilateral agreements with China - the most important was signed in 2001 - the Agreement on Fighting Terrorism, Extremism and Separatism under the auspices of the Shanghai Organization of Cooperation (SCO). The SCO is a political alliance of Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan created in June 2001. The SCO arose out of the Shanghai Five, a loose security group that comprised of the current SCO members except Uzbekistan. But now Uyghur activists say Bishkek has gone a step further, and begun deporting members of this ethnic group back to China. Recently, a Kyrgyz human rights organisation called "Democracy" started petitioning against the forced returns of Uyghurs to China. The problem allegedly intensified in March when Bishkek and Beijing completed ratification of a bilateral Kyrgyz-Chinese agreement on extradition, which was signed in 1998. "I learned about the extradition agreement from a TV news report and became terrified because the local police never treated me fairly. Even if I provided them with proper documents, they just extorted money from me. With this new agreement I feel so unsafe in this country," Erkin, a young Uyghur in the Kyrgyz capital, told IRIN. Such stories are not new. According to Amnesty International (AI) in 2003 in Nepal, Uyghurs recognised as refugees by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were extradited to China and one of them, Sher Ali, was executed. "There are cases when Uyghurs, Chinese citizens, were returned back to China from Kyrgyzstan," Tursun Islam, head of the Democracy NGO said. But the UN refugee agency maintains they are unaware of such cases. "UNHCR is not aware of any refugee or asylum-seeker being deported from Kyrgyzstan back to China," Anna Nee, a UNHCR lawyer based in the capital, told IRIN. Corrupt police and visa registration officials are another difficulty for Uyghurs, rights activists say. According to the watchdog NGO Transparency International, police stop foreigners, or people who do not look obviously Kyrgyz. Vadim Sadonshoev, a student at Bishkek's American University in Central Asia, an ethnic Tajik from the southern Tajik city of Khorugh, complained: "It is usual that police stop me and my friends. Last year, the police stopped us and though we had all necessary documents, they took our money. In addition they embarrassed us, saying "What you are doing here, in Kyrgyzstan?" "Concerning the human rights situation of local Uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan, it is obvious that it is bad," Islam said.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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