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(New York) – The government of Thailand should ensure that a group of 220 ethnic Uighurs are not forcibly returned to China and have urgent access to refugee status determination proceedings by the United Nations refugee agency, Human Rights Watch said today. The group of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim, Turkic minority that originates from western China, was discovered on March 13, 2014, in a jungle camp in Thailand’s Songkhla province.

Uighurs forcibly returned to China face credible threats of torture. “Thai authorities should realize that Uighurs forced back to China disappear into a black hole,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “They need to allow all members of this group access to a fair process to determine their claims based on their merits, not on Beijing’s demands.”

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.

Thai immigration officials conducted a night raid in a remote rubber plantation and detained 60 women, 78 men, and 82 children who identified themselves as Turkish. Immigration officials held the group at the Sadao Immigration Detention Center in Songkhla. The group members said they would only speak with officials from the Embassy of Turkey, who were scheduled to visit on the evening of March 14. A senior diplomat from China also flew to Songkhla to raise Beijing’s demands for access to the group and to conduct meetings with Thai officials.

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 office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 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.

The government imposes heavy and arbitrary restrictions on Uighurs’ ability to obtain passports, and the recent arrest of Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, a moderate 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 Kunming’s train station 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, 2014, Xinjiang 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.”

“Beijing has a duty to provide public order, but it has no business trying to compel other governments to violate international law, or violate the rights of ethnic minorities within its own borders,” Adams said. “No Uighur person with an asylum claim pending or determined to be a refugee should be sent back to China.”

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