HATYAI – A group of mainly Muslim refugees from western China has become the focus of an international tug-of-war in Thailand as Beijing flexes its diplomatic muscle and western powers warn Bangkok not to send them home.
China has stepped up pressure on Thai authorities to repatriate more than 400 Uighur refugees who have been detained as illegal immigrants in Thailand after fleeing the increasingly restive Chinese territory of Xinjiang.
But human rights groups, the US, Europe and the UN are urging the Thai government not to send the large group of migrants, including more than 60 children, back to China for fear they will face severe punishment.
“Given the pattern of persecution faced by those Uighurs who’ve tried to flee China and have been sent back in the past, we believe these people are at great risk if they are sent back to China,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
Many of the 424 Uighurs being held in Thailand have claimed to be Turkish in order to deny Chinese officials access to them and to facilitate their migration to Turkey or other countries that agree to take them.
Turkish diplomats have met many of the detainees, who are dispersed in several different detention centres.
Human rights groups say the Uighurs’ best chance of avoiding repatriation to China will be if Turkey agrees to claim them as its citizens and flies them back to Ankara.
Uighurs are an ethnically distinct group of Turkic-speaking people who live in the vast, arid, resource-rich Chinese borderland of Xinjiang. Most are Muslim and many chafe under Chinese rule and support the idea of an independent homeland.
Over the past year in Xinjiang, more than 100 people have been killed in what the Chinese government has described as terrorist attacks or battles between security forces and extremists.
In March, a group of at least eight Uighurs armed with knives and swords set upon crowds of people at the Kunming railway station in southwestern China, killing at least 29 and leaving more than 100 badly injured.
Police eventually shot dead four of the assailants, which included several women, and captured four more.
At the time, Radio Free Asia quoted Uighurs who knew them and other sources saying the assailants were trying to flee China through well-established underground routes into southeast Asia but were unsuccessful and carried out the attack in an act of desperation.
Chinese officials have said the attackers were terrorists trying to leave China to go to fight in the civil war in Syria.
Thai police have echoed those claims and told Thai media that many of the Uighurs detained in Thailand were also trying to travel to Syria to fight.
Human rights groups and western diplomats say that is highly unlikely, especially as so many of the refugees are women or small children.
“The Uighurs in Thailand are clearly refugees. Labelling as terrorists a group of people comprising in the majority women and children is irresponsible,” said Alim Seytoff, director of the Uyghur American Association (which uses a different spelling for Uighur), from Washington, DC. “The Thai authorities have legal and moral obligations to ensure these frightened people find safety in third countries and that their humanitarian needs are met in the interim.”
The Chinese government has been granted access to 127 of the Uighurs who are being held in Bangkok.
In answer to questions about the case, China’s foreign ministry would only say that “China and Thailand have maintained close co-operation in combating illegal immigration activities”.
The foreign ministry added that the case was “still under investigation and the identities of these people are still being verified”, in a sign Beijing could accept a compromise in which Turkey does recognise the detainees as its own citizens,
However, Turkey may be unwilling to open the door to a flood of similar claims from as many as 10m Uighurs living in Xinjiang.
Scores of Uighur illegal migrants have been repatriated to China from southeast Asian countries in recent years. Some of them have been executed or sentenced to hefty jail terms while others have simply disappeared, according to rights groups and diplomats.
A group of several dozen Uighurs and possibly more are also in detention in Malaysia, these people say, but the Malaysian government has been careful to keep the issue out of the spotlight as it deals with the fallout from the missing Flight MH370.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has provided blankets and some personal hygiene items for the refugees in Thailand but has not had any access to the group in Malaysia.
“We’re urging the Thai government to allow these people to stay while their claims are assessed by the Turkish authorities and we insist they should eventually be allowed to go wherever they want to,” said Vivian Tan, a Bangkok-based spokesperson for UNHCR.