Source tells the Anadolu Agency that he suspects unidentified group are Uighur Muslims from Xinjiang province in China.
HAT YAI, Thailand - Diplomats from the Turkish Embassy in Bangkok arrived at an immigration detention center in southern Thailand on Friday to identify 220 people who claim to be Turkish refugees and have expressed a desire to be relocated to the country.
"I have been instructed to establish their identity. My findings will be passed to my headquarters. They don't have documentations, as far as I know,” Ahmet Akay, the deputy chief of mission from the Turkish Embassy in Bangkok told the Anadolu Agency.
Speaking to reporters immediately after a brief meeting with the refugees' leaders, Akay said they appeared to be speaking a dialect of a Turkic language and that they had expressed a desire to be located to Turkey.
When asked if the refugees were Turkish citizens, Akay said: “Ethnicity and citizenship are two different thing. This is a humanitarian situation.”
He said it was not up to the embassy in Bangkok to decide whether they would be permitted to relocate to Turkey, or whether they would be classified as asylum seekers.
The two diplomats will remain at the scene until Sunday to work with Thai officials to determine the identity of the 220 refugees -- 78 of whom are men, 60 are women and 82 are children, mostly toddlers.
The group was discovered Wednesday night residing in a remote camp surrounded by a rubber plantation and was immediately relocated to the detention center.
Authorities initially tried to separate the women and children from the men to place them at a government-run Child Protection Centre, but the men refused to allow them to do so.
The group then spent two nights in tents at the Immigration Detention Centre compound, which is situated less than two kilometers from the entrance to Hat Yai International Airport.
During this time, authorities were unable to garner little information from them.
Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot, the chief of Thailand’s immigration bureau in the south, said the refugees would not provide any personal information, such as their country of origin, their nationality or how they arrived in southern Thailand.
Only one person, a presumed leader of the group, would talk and all he would say was that his people are “Turkish” and added that he would only talk to Turkish officials, Pitaneelaboot said.
A group of local Thai Muslim females arrived at the detention Friday afternoon with halal food and to act as go-between for the authorities by speaking Arabic, yet the refugees refused to provide any more information.
A turning point came with the arrival of the Turkish diplomats and a self-proclaimed teacher Erkin Ezizi, who flew from Ankara and arrived in southern Thailand on the same flight as the Turkish diplomats.
The refugee men wept openly on seeing him. Some walked over and hugged Ezizi tightly as he appeared to comfort them with encouraging words.
Ezizi was traveling on a Turkish passport but a Thai translator said, judging from his dialect, he may have been an ethnic Uighur living in Turkey.
Ezizi and the diplomats urged the refugees to cooperate with Thai immigration officials who have expressed frustration over their inability to communicate with the refugees and the refugees unwillingness to provide basic information about their country of origin, their immediate plans in southern Thailand or how they arrived in the Southeast Asian country.
Thai immigration officials also held a closed door meeting with a Chinese official from the consulate in Songkhla province on Friday morning but the diplomat did not meet with the refugees or speak to the press.
“The Chinese diplomat just wanted our briefings and informed us that they stand by to provide any assistance should we request it,” Police Major General Thatchai said.
Thatchai said he suspected that the refugees are part of a human trafficking network that work with local “agents.”
“Rohingya refugees (from Burma) have come through this region and lately more Bangladeshi have been arriving on our shores. This is the first of such a group, of this scale, who appeared to have originated from Central Asia,” Thatchai said.
He added that Thailand has a porous border with many entry points, especially along the coastal areas, making it easy for people to enter.
In what appeared to be a related incident, Malaysian border officials have detained 62 self-proclaimed “Turks” suspected of entering Malaysia illegal on its northern border with Thailand. They were spotted on the Thai-Malaysian border fence at about 5:30am on Thursday.
Authorities have yet to establish if the 220 “Turks” in southern Thailand were from the same human trafficking network.
Senior Thai government officials told the Anadolu Agency on Friday that they are aware that the entire world is watching and that they have to be careful about how they handle this issue.
A source working in an environment connected to the livelihood of refugees told the Anadolu Agency on Thursday that he suspected that the unidentified group of Muslims are Uyghur from Xinjiang province in western China.
“If it is established that they are Uighur from Xinjiang, it could be a diplomatic headache if the Chinese government decide to pressure Thailand and ask for their deportation,” the man, who did not wish to be named for reasons of confidentiality, said,
Malaysia came under strong criticism from human rights organizations in December 2013 when officials deported six Uyghur.
Similarly, in December 2009, Cambodia, despite objections form the United States and the United Nations, deported 20 ethnic Uyghur minority back to China.
The deportation came at the height of communal violence between ethnic Han Chinese and the local Uyghur in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Nearly 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, were killed during the riot.
The Uyghur people are a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority group who have accused the Chinese of government of human rights violation and discrimination against them.
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