June 25, 2010 / 11:50 AM / 8 years ago

Most refugees return to "dire" state in Kyrgyzstan

GENEVA (Reuters) - Nearly all the 100,000 refugees who fled Kyrgyzstan’s conflict have returned from Uzbekistan but many are in dire need of shelter because their homes have been destroyed, U.N. aid agencies said on Friday.

An ethnic Uzbek man comforts his wife as they stand at their house which was burnt down during recent clashes in the city of Osh, June 24, 2010. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR voiced concern that some ethnic Uzbeks may have been pressured by local officials to come back before a referendum to be held on Sunday but could not say how widespread the problem was.

UNHCR declined to describe the nature of the pressure.

At least 100,000 people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, crossed over into Uzbekistan following ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan that killed more than 250 people two weeks ago.

“It’s moving very very fast, clearly the vast majority are back if not nearly all,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told Reuters.

“It doesn’t mean at all that the emergency situation is over,” Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told a news briefing.

“All these people have important needs — food, hygiene, shelter, medicines — all the relief items you need when you have left everything, when your house has been burned and you have nothing, and some members of the family have maybe disappeared,” she added. “It is still a dire situation.”

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The interim government, which assumed power after a popular revolt in April overthrew the president, says the referendum is crucial to restoring order in the south of the Central Asian country after the violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

But many families who return still face prolonged displacement as their homes have been destroyed or badly damaged, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

“We are concerned about the voluntary nature of returns in some cases,” Edwards said. “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”.”

Some parts of southern Kyrgyzstan, primarily Uzbek areas or villages, remain very difficult or impossible for aid workers to reach due to security concerns, according to UNICEF.

“UNICEF continues to be particularly concerned about women and children who are on the move, many of them trying to return home, even to locations where homes have been destroyed, while most apparently intend to stay with neighbours or relatives until their homes have been rebuilt,” said Jeremy Hartley of the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Finding temporary shelter for returnees is a top priority in Osh, where the agency is distributing medical and surgical kits, water tanks and jerrycans, he said.

A humanitarian corridor has opened between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the Uzbek government has agreed to bring supplies including tarpaulins, health kits and medicines on 25 trucks from Andizhan to Osh, according to Hartley. (Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Mark Heinrich)

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