Thailand came under pressure Friday not to deport more than 200 Uyghurs back to China after they were detained near the Thai border with Malaysia while fleeing ethnic tension at home.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the Thai government should ensure that the Uyghurs are not forcibly returned home to the troubled northwestern Xinjiang region and have urgent access to refugee status determination proceedings by the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
Many ethnic minority Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region say they are subjected to political, cultural, and religious repression for opposing Chinese rule and if deported home, they face credible threats of torture, Human Rights Watch said.
“Thai authorities should realize that Uyghurs forced back to China disappear into a black hole,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”
Thai police said that the 213 Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim Uyghurs, including 80 children, have been taken to a nearby immigration detention center after they were held while hiding in a camp in a rubber plantation in Ratapoom district in Songkhla province on Wednesday.
Police are investigating whether they were waiting to be smuggled by a human trafficking ring across the border to predominantly Muslim Malaysia.
The Uyghurs had initially told the Thai authorities that they are from Turkey, fearing they would be deported back to Xinjiang if their true identity is revealed, a relative had told RFA's Uyghur Service, speaking from Malaysia.
Thai authorities have already informed Chinese diplomats in Bangkok about the group's illegal presence in Thailand and the diplomats have identified them and told them that they should return home, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok, told RFA that the agency would interview them and try and find out what their immediate humanitarian needs are, adding that the agency would work with the Thai authorities to make sure that they can stay temporarily while their background and needs are evaluated.
Asked if they would be considered for UNHCR's "people of concern" status, which is given to asylum-seekers among other groups, Tan said, "We are talking to the Thai authorities to make sure that they can be profiled as needed and not be prematurely sent elsewhere before we have a chance to assess their situation."
"If these people are found to be in need of international protection, then UNHCR will discuss with the Thai authorities to see what can be done for them in terms of immediate assistance on the ground and we will also be talking to the international community to see what longer-term solutions can be found."
A senior Thai Immigration Police official, Major General Thachai Pitaneelabut, said Turkish Embassy officials have also spoken to detainees.
"We need to examine a lot of things, firstly, whether they entered [Thailand] legally or not and secondly, if they entered illegally, if they were victims of human trafficking,” he told RFA.
In a possibly related incident, Malaysian police arrested 62 people who had illegally crossed the porous border between Thailand and Malaysia on Thursday, the New Straits Times newspaper in Malaysia reported.
They also claimed to be Turkish, although it is highly unusual for Turks to seek asylum in this way, the Reuters news agency reported.
'World is watching Thailand'
The Washington-based Uyghur American Association (UAA) also called on the Thai government to ensure the safety of the "refugees" by not returning them to China and by allowing the group access to UNHCR officials in order to process asylum claims.
“The whole world is watching how the Thai government is going to handle the cases of these Uyghur refugees. We expect the Thai government to work closely with UNHCR under the principle of non-refoulement, not deport these Uyghurs back to China and guarantee their security,” UAA president Alim Seytoff said in a statement.
He said that an "unprecedented" flight of Uyghurs from China is underway and that it is an indication of the "intense Chinese government repression targeting Uyghurs.”
Human Rights Watch said that 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
In recent years, many Uyghurs have been forcibly returned to China, particularly from Southeast Asia, a common route for people fleeing China.
In December 2009, Cambodia forcibly returned 20 Uyghurs even though the UNHCR had already issued “persons of concern” letters to all members of the group.
At least two among the 20 Uyghur asylum-seekers were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012, family members told RFA at the time.
In December 2012, Malaysia deported six Uyghur men back to China after they were detained allegedly for attempting to leave Malaysia on false passports.
Although the six detained men were registered by UNHCR and had asylum claims under review, Malaysian police transferred the men into the custody of Chinese authorities, who escorted them from Malaysia to China on a chartered flight.
China has intensified a sweeping security crackdown in Xinjiang, where according to official figures about 100 people are believed to have been killed over the past year-—many of them Uyghurs accused by the authorities of terrorism and separatism.
Rights groups and experts say Beijing exaggerates the terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against Uyghurs.
Many Uyghurs refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan, as the region came under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s.