Claims UN ignored Uighur deportation warnings

Originally published by ABC News, 26 February 2010

There are claims the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) ignored repeated warnings about the imminent forced deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers from Cambodia to China last year.

The Cambodian government was condemned around the world when it deported the asylum seekers at gunpoint in December.

Two Australian women – joint Nobel Peace Prize winner Sister Denise Coghlan and Taya Hunt, a legal officer with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) – represented the Uighurs for six months prior to their deportation.

The pair have spoken exclusively to AM.

Ms Hunt provided legal and humanitarian support to the Uighurs and is one of the few people to have close contact with them.

“[They were] very grateful for the assistance we were providing them and generally just a nice, calm group of people,” she said.

“There was a pregnant woman in the group and her beautiful two children.”

Ms Hunt says the first Uighur arrived in Cambodia in June and the rest in October.

She says the Uighurs began to feel unsafe and concerned they would be returned to China.

Under arrangements in Cambodia at the time, refugee status determinations were handled jointly by the UNHCR and the Cambodian government.

Ms Hunt says repeated warnings were given to the UNHCR that the Uighurs felt uneasy about their applications being processed by Cambodia.

“We were becoming increasingly concerned, as the Uighurs themselves were becoming increasingly concerned, and expressed that concern on almost a daily basis to the UNHCR,” she said.

AM has information that the JRS communicated at least five warnings to the UNHCR.

An excerpt of a letter sent to the UNHCR from JRS on December 10 reads: “JRS’s principal concern is that one or more of these applicants may be forcibly removed from Cambodia to China with an outstanding application for refugee status.

“Informing this concern is, firstly, the fact that Cambodia has historically provided uneven protection for registered asylum seekers; secondly, incidents this year which indicate that the Cambodian Government Refugee Office may not be able to objectively consider cases from China; and thirdly, Chinese-Cambodian political relations.”

Ms Hunt says the warnings were ignored, and on December 17 the Uighur asylum seekers were moved to a jointly run UNHCR/Cambodian government safe house.

On December 19 the asylum seekers were moved at gunpoint, and a day later they were flown to China.

Ms Hunt says the JRS advised the UNHCR against moving the men to the safe house.

“Given that the vice-president was scheduled to visit Cambodia the weekend of the deportation or the weekend they were moved to the safe house, I think given the context and also that we had been advising the UN that the Uighurs felt unsafe, that they felt they were being watched, it was a serious error of judgment on the part of UNHCR,” she said.

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http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/02/26/2830785.htm?section=justin