Thailand urged not to return Uighurs to China

Latest group detained in Sa Kaew province near Thai-Cambodia border, brought to Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok.

Latest group detained in Sa Kaew province near Thai-Cambodia border, brought to Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok.

BANGKOK - A leading rights group has called on the government of Thailand to ensure that 112 illegal migrants, believed to be ethnic Uighurs, arrested recently in the country's east, are not forcibly returned to China.

Thai authorities detained the group in Sa Kaew province near the Thai-Cambodia border and brought them to the central Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok.

Chinese officials have reportedly confirmed that at least a quarter of the 112 are Uighurs, a Muslim and Turkic minority from Xinjiang in western China. 

"Past cases have shown that Uighurs returned to China are always at risk of persecution," Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Saturday.

"Thailand needs to act quickly to ensure that these people are protected and not sent into harm’s way." 

The group said that Uighurs forcibly returned to China usually face the threat of arrest and torture. 

It said members of the group should be allowed unhindered access to officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the right to seek asylum and undergo refugee status determination.

The 112 people found in Sa Kaew is the second group found in Thailand this month suspected to be Uighurs.

On March 12, officials in the far south discovered 220 people in a jungle camp in Songkhla province, near the border with Malaysia.

The first group claimed to be Turks, and has asked to be repatriated to Turkey, but their country of origin is still being checked by Thai and international officials. 

Representatives from the Turkish embassy in Bangkok have spoken to a representative of this group, members of which were fined for illegal entry into Thailand.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today that Thailand, as a signatory to the Convention against Torture, was 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 rights violations.

Southeast Asia is a common route for people fleeing persecution in countries such as North Korea and China, and there have been several instances of Uighurs being forcibly returned to China in recent years - in violation of international law.

In December 2009, Cambodia forcibly returned 20 Uighurs despite the local UNHCR office issuing "persons of concern" letters to them.

The rights group said subsequent media reports, which could not be verified, stated that some members of that group were tried and sentenced to death, while others were jailed.

Then in late 2012, Malaysia deported six Uighur men back to China, who were allegedly attempting to leave the country on false passports.

The six, who were also registered with the UNHCR, were transferred into the custody of Chinese authorities, who escorted them to China on a chartered flight.

Nothing has been heard of them since.

HRW’s Adams said: "It’s really not that complicated: returning Uighurs to China exposes them to severe abuse. Thailand will be violating international law by sending any of these people back."

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