(New York) – The government of Thailand should stop forcibly sending people of Turkic ethnicity to China, where they face persecution, Human Rights Watch said today. The Thai government announced that on July 9, 2015, it had returned about 100 “Uighur immigrants” to China, while at least 65 other people of Turkic ethnicity remain in immigration detention.
“Thailand has cravenly caved to pressure from Beijing and robbed these people of their only protections,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The risks to Uighurs forcibly returned to China are grim and well established, so it’s urgent to protect anyone in Thailand who the Chinese claims is a Uighur against forced expulsion or return.”
On July 9, Thai authorities transferred approximately 100 alleged Uighurs – an ethnically Turkic, predominantly Muslim minority in China – from several immigration detention centers in Bangkok to the Don Mueang military airport. Credible sources said they were placed on two airplanes, which then departed, presumably to China. Their current whereabouts and well-being are not known. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that it was “shocked by this deportation of some 100 people and consider it a flagrant violation of international law.”
Those deported were among several groups of people of Turkic ethnicity who had arrived in Thailand in 2014 and have been held in immigration detention ever since. Some have claimed to be Turkish and asked to be sent to Turkey. On at least two occasions, Thai authorities – in violation of international law on the protection of asylum seekers – allowed Chinese officials access to these groups, despite the groups’ unwillingness to speak with those officials.
Uighurs who previously have been forcibly returned to China have faced arbitrary arrest and detention, and criminal prosecution. Pervasive ethnic discrimination, severe religious repression, and increasing cultural suppression – which the Chinese government has sought to justify in the “fight against separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism” – have fueled rising tensions in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Uighurs who want to leave the country often have few legitimate means to do so, as the Chinese government has made it very difficult for Uighurs in Xinjiang to obtain passports.
In recent years there have been a number of incidents in which countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, have forcibly returned Uighurs to China in violation of international law. All immigration detainees of suspected Turkic ethnicity whom China claims to be its nationals should be allowed unhindered access to UNHCR officials to enable the UN refugee agency to make an objective and credible nationality determination or to conduct refugee status determinations for those claiming to be refugees.
Under customary international law on refugee protection and as a party to the Convention against Torture, Thailand is obligated to respect the principle of nonrefoulement and to ensure that no one in its custody is forcibly sent to a place where they would risk persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations.
China should allow UNHCR, the deportees’ family members, lawyers, diplomats, and independent humanitarian organizations to access those forcibly sent to China. The Chinese government should also account for their whereabouts and well-being.
“Thailand undercut its decision to allow some people to go to Turkey by forcing others to China,” Richardson said. “Thailand should make clear it won’t further violate international law by immediately announcing a moratorium on additional deportations of Turkic people to China.”
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