Activists Slam Thailand’s Repatriation of Uighurs to China

New York Times, 9 July 2015


Associated Press  Thailand sent back to China more than 100 Uighur refugees on Thursday, drawing harsh criticism from the U.N. refugee agency and human rights groups over concerns that ethnic minority members face persecution by the Chinese government.

Protesters in Turkey, which had accepted an earlier batch of Uighur refugees from Thailand, ransacked the Thai Consulate overnight.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry condemned Thailand, saying the deportation violated international humanitarian laws and came despite “numerous initiatives” by Turkey to prevent their repatriation. The statement, which says 115 were deported, said Turkey will continue to monitor their fate.

Thai deputy government spokesman Maj. Gen. Verachon Sukhonthapatipak said that Thailand had assurances from Chinese authorities about the safety of 109 Uighurs. However, in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China would take action against those suspected of breaking the law.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said that as a third country, the matter was not Thailand’s problem, and that the place they were sent to — he did not name China — would take care of it according to its justice system.

“I’m asking if we don’t do it this way, then how would we do it?” he said. “Or do you want us to keep them for ages until they have children for three generations?”

He said that Thailand has good relations with Turkey. “I want to explain to the Muslims that we do not mean to hurt anyone. We want to create peace as much as possible.”

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it was “shocked” and considered Thailand’s action “a flagrant violation of international law.”

The Uighur group had been in Thailand for over a year, along with others who had fled China and claimed to be Turkish, Verachon said. Thai authorities sought to verify their nationalities before relocating them, he said.

“We found that about 170 of them were Turkish, so they were recently sent to Turkey,” he said. “And about 100 were Chinese, so they were sent to China as of this morning, under the agreement that their safety is guaranteed according to humanitarian principles.” He denied unconfirmed reports from Uighur activists that the refugees resisted deportation and some had been hurt.

The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China’s far west Xinjiang region. The group has complained of cultural and religious suppression as well as economic marginalization under Chinese rule.

“I strongly urge the Thai authorities to investigate this matter and appeal to Thailand to honor its fundamental international obligations,” Volker Türk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, said in a statement.

He said such deportations violate the right to protection against return to a country where a person has reason to fear persecution.

The U.N. agency said it had repeatedly brought up the matter of the Uighur refugees with the Thai government, and “in response, the agency was given assurances that the matter would be handled in accordance with international legal standards, and that the group would continue to receive protection.”

China’s position is that the Uighurs left the country illegally. Beijing has accused Uighur separatists of terrorism in Xinjiang, where ethnic violence has left hundreds of people dead over the past two years.

“China’s relevant departments will bring those who are suspected of committing serious crimes to justice according to law,” Hua Chunying told reporters. “As for those who are not suspected of committing crimes or who commit lesser offences, we will find proper ways to deal with them.”

In Turkey, which has cultural ties to the Uighurs and agreed to take in the other 170 refugees despite China’s objections, mostly Uighur protesters vandalized the Thai Consulate in Istanbul. The office was closed on Thursday.

Police allowed about 100 protesters to pray outside the consulate before taking nine of them away for questioning.

The Thai Embassy issued a statement urging its nationals in Turkey to be on alert.

“For reasons of realpolitik, Bangkok callously treated these Uighurs as expendable pawns to be sacrificed to big brother China in clear violation of international rights standards,” said Phil Robertson, Asia Division deputy director for Human Rights Watch.

The World Uyghur Congress, a German-based advocacy group, said that those repatriated could face criminal charges and harsh punishment, possibly execution, under China’s opaque legal system — the reasons they fled China in the first place.