(New York) – The government of Thailand should ensure that 112 newly detained people believed to be ethnic Uighurs are not forcibly returned to China, Human Rights Watch said today. Thai authorities detained the group in Sa Kaew province near the Thai-Cambodia border and brought them to the central Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok. A senior Thai Immigration Bureau official said that Chinese officials with access to the group identified at least 30 as Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim and Turkic minority that originates from western China.
“Past cases have shown that Uighurs returned to China are always at risk of persecution,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Thailand needs to act quickly to ensure that these people are protected and not sent into harm’s way.”
Uighurs forcibly returned to China typically face severe persecution, including the threat of arrest and torture. Members of the group should be allowed unhindered access to officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the right to seek asylum and undergo refugee status determination.
Thai authorities discovered an earlier group of 220 people, alleged by some sources to be Uighurs, in a jungle camp in Thailand’s Songkhla province, on March 13, 2014. The group claims to be Turkish and has asked to be repatriated to Turkey.
Under customary international law and as a party to the Convention against Torture, Thailand is obliged to ensure that no one in its custody is forcibly sent to a place where they would risk being subjected to persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations.
In recent years there have been multiple incidents of Uighurs being forcibly returned to China in violation of international law, particularly from Southeast Asia, a common route for people fleeing China. In December 2009, Cambodia forcibly returned 20 Uighurs despite the fact that the UNHCR office had already issued “persons of concern” letters to all members of the group. Subsequent media reports, which could not be independently verified, stated that some members of that group were tried and sentenced to death, while others were sentenced to prison.
On December 31, 2012, Malaysia deported six Uighur men back to China. The six had been detained earlier in 2012, allegedly for attempting to leave Malaysia on false passports. While in detention, these six men were registered by UNHCR. Although all six had asylum claims under review for first instance decisions, on December 31 Malaysian police transferred the men into the custody of Chinese authorities, who escorted them from Malaysia to China on a chartered flight. Human Rights Watch has been unable to obtain any further information from Malaysian or Chinese government sources as to the six men’s whereabouts or well-being.
Pervasive ethnic discrimination, severe religious repression, and increasing cultural suppression – justified by the Chinese government in the name of the “fight against separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism” – continue to fuel rising tensions in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
This week, Ablimit Ahmettohti Damolla Hajim, a Uighur Muslim delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a consultative body to the Chinese government, made an unusual public statement against discrimination and persecution against ethnic Uighurs in China.
The Chinese government imposes heavy and arbitrary restrictions on Uighurs’ ability to obtain passports, and the arrest in February of Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, a moderate academic and advocate of the rights of Uighurs in China, is indicative of the closing space for peaceful dissents in Xinijang. The attribution of recent attacks on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and on the train station in Kunming to alleged Uighur separatists has in turn increased tensions in the region, and will likely contribute to an increased outflow of Uighurs from China. On March 7, Xinjiang regional Governor Nur Bekri announced a “severe crackdown” on “separatist activities,” which he blamed on foreign forces “who don’t want to see a united, strong China led by socialism and by the party.”
“It’s really not that complicated: returning Uighurs to China exposes them to severe abuse,” Adams said. “Thailand will be violating international law by sending any of these people back.”