UNHCR concerned about return conditions for Kyrgyz refugees

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The UN refugee agency on Friday raised fears that Kyrgyz refugees returning from Uzbekistan were being pressured to go back even though their homes may have been destroyed in ethnic strife.

A "concern is that refugees may be returning into situations of further displacement in light of the fact that many homes have been destroyed or badly damaged," said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

He also suggested that some returnees had been pushed to return, rather than deciding to head back to their homeland voluntarily.

"UNHCR's view is that where people are returning, they should be able to do so on an informed basis and in conditions of safety, voluntariness and sustainability," he stressed.

"We are concerned about the voluntary nature of returns in some cases."

Asked if the agency was aware of any refugees who were pushed back to Kyrgyzstan, Edwards said it is "certainly a concern among some of those we have spoken to."

"I don't think we're yet in a position to say how wide the problem might be but that's something we're working on today," he added.

Kyrgyz authorities said that some 70,000 refugees have returned after they fled inter-ethnic clashes that erupted earlier this month.

The UNHCR did not give its own estimate but noted that the pace of returns has stepped up in recent days.

Many refugees and displaced people told the agency's staff that they had "mixed feelings about going home," said Edwards.

"Although they want to be reunited with their families, many are worried for their safety and about going back to destroyed, damaged or looted homes," he said.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said some of the aid which was bound for refugees in Uzbekistan is now being diverted to southern Kyrgyzstan.

"I know that 50 trucks will be sent directly to Osh instead of going to Uzbekistan. So the UN agencies ... are revising and adapting to the situation," said Elisabeth Byrs, OCHA spokeswoman.

"It doesn't at all mean that the emergency is over, because now we have a IDP (international displaced people) problem within Kyrgyzstan plus a resettlement situation."

The UN had estimated that about 100,000 fled to Uzbekistan during ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan between the majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbek populations earlier this month.

The UN had also said that around 300,000 people were displaced within Kyrgyzstan in recent weeks.

© 2010 AFP

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