At the end of 2001, Uzbekistan hosted some 38,000 refugees, including approximately 30,000 ethnic Uzbeks from Tajikistan and more than 8,000 Afghans. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees had recognized more than 2,000 refugees under its mandate at year's end; another 1,400 asylum seekers had claims pending with UNHCR. The UN refugee agency's caseload in 2001 was almost entirely Afghan.

Uzbekistan is the only former Soviet Central Asian republic that has not signed the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol. Since the country has no national legislation regarding refugees, UNHCR carries out refugee status determinations.

The Uzbek government has signed the 1999 Charter for European Security, which, although not legally binding, calls on signatories to respect the right to seek asylum and to protect refugees. In practice, however, refugees in Uzbekistan find little legal protection and face difficult living conditions that stem from strict Uzbek laws regarding foreigners. (For example, all foreigners, including refugees, must pay for housing, medical expenses, and transportation in U.S. dollars.) Uzbekistan regards most refugees and asylum seekers as illegal immigrants subject to deportation.

Afghan Refugees and Aid to Afghanistan

After the U.S. intervention began in neighboring Afghanistan in October, the Uzbek authorities were particularly intent on preventing would-be Afghan refugees from crossing the border. Consequently, the "Friendship Bridge," a Soviet-era bridge spanning the Amu Darya River on the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan that had been closed since 1996, remained shut down, blocking an important route for humanitarian aid to reach northern Afghanistan. As the food situation within Afghanistan grew more desperate, international pressure built on Uzbekistan to open the bridge.

In October, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) issued a press release calling on Uzbekistan to open the bridge, observing that "using barges to transport food across the river entails unloading the food from trucks on the Afghan side – a labor-intensive and time-consuming process." USCR also called on Uzbekistan to open its border to fleeing Afghan refugees. "Northern Afghanistan is rife with conflict," said USCR. "Preventing refugees from fleeing by closing the border to them is inhumane." In November, USCR wrote to the Uzbek government, urging it to open the bridge and to do all it could "to facilitate the UN and NGOs' [nongovernmental organizations] ability to provide assistance."

On December 9, Uzbekistan opened the Friendship Bridge, and the first tens of thousands of tons of food and aid began moving by truck across the border into Afghanistan.

Tajik Refugees

The 30,000 Tajik refugees in Uzbekistan are ethnic Uzbeks who lived in Tajikistan before the outbreak of civil war in the early 1990s. In 2000, the Uzbek government began to deport the ethnic Uzbeks, most of whom had been tolerated until then, but had remained without legal status.

In March, Uzbek authorities deported 56 ethnic Uzbeks, but the Tajik authorities refused to accept them. A month later, 39 of the group remained in a no-man's land between the borders of the two countries, where they were living in makeshift tents.

Internal Displacement

The authoritarian, secular Uzbek government has repressed fundamentalist Islamic movements in Uzbekistan, and armed conflict has occurred with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group reportedly once allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan. After fighting in the Surkhandarya region near the Afghan border, the Uzbek government forcibly evacuated about 2,000 residents of five villages, moved them about 120 miles (200 km) away from their homes, and prohibited them from returning. Other villages were reportedly also forcibly evacuated during 2001, although the numbers displaced were not available.


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