Uyghur Refugees and Asylum Seekers

The internationally recognized rights of asylum seekers have been consistently flouted by the Chinese government for decades, primarily in relation to neighbouring states. Uyghur asylum seekers have been forcibly deported from states with strong trade and diplomatic ties to China for many years.

The act of forcibly repatriating individuals or groups who make it clear about their desire not to be returned to their home country is a clear infringement of well-established international law. The non-refoulement principle spelled out in the 1951 Refugee Convention—to which China is a state party—requires that states do not allow for the forcible return of refugees or asylum-seekers to territories where their “life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, member of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Historical Flight of Uyghurs from East Turkestan

Historically speaking, the Chinese government has shifted its approach towards Uyghur out-migration over the years depending on factors including the attitudes of its leaders, activities of the population, and in response to major events. Our current focus will be to develop a better understanding of the Communist Party’s most recent attitude towards Uyghurs who have fled over the last 3-4 years in particular. Despite sporadic openings over the last several decades in the ability of Uyghurs and others to move in an out of the country, the internationally recognized rights of refugees and asylum seekers have been mostly ignored by the Chinese government.

Amnesty International began documenting cases of Uyghurs who were forcibly returned to China in the late 1990s, many of whom had already been registered by the UNHCR as asylum seekers. This trend was immediately noticeable following the attacks on 11 September 2001, which provided China with a handy new vehicle to justify repression of certain communities. Amnesty documented cases of Uyghurs being returned from Nepal, at least seven from Pakistan between 2002 and 2004, as well some from as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

In one highly visible and controversial case, a Canadian citizen, Huseyincan Celil, was arrested while visiting family in Uzbekistan in 2006 and was subsequently deported to China. His case brought international attention and elicited strong objections by the Canadian government. Celil fled China back in 2001 following a short jail term for his support for religious and political rights Uyghurs and now remains in prison in Urumqi. During the ordeal, he was denied access to legal counsel and Canadian officials, his dual citizenship was not recognised, and was forced to sign a confession which led initially to a life sentence (his sentence has since been reduced to 20 years).

In the years that followed, Uyghurs have been forcibly returned from a number of other states. In December 2009, 20 were returned to China from Cambodia, even after the group were in the process of having their asylum claims reviewed by the UNHCR. Only days following the extradition, China and Cambodia signed 14 trade deals worth around 1 billion USD. Another five were returned from Pakistan and eleven from Malaysia in August 2011, and another six again from Malaysia in what Human Rights Watch called, “a grave violation of international law” in 2013. In addition to the above mentioned cases, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Burma, and Nepal have also extradited Uyghurs to China and since 2001 at least 289 Uyghurs have been forcibly deported.

Current Cases

Since 2014, there has been an intensification of these efforts which culminated in the return of  109 Uyghurs on 8 July 2015 from an immigration detention facility in Bangkok, Thailand, despite widespread condemnation from the international community. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had reportedly been given assurances by Thai authorities that those in detention would be safe from persecution, as the group made it plainly clear that they did not want to be deported. Although it was reported that the Thai government sent a delegation to China in order to check on the state of those returned, no official report or statement was ever released concerning the state of the group or their whereabouts.

The deportation came after months of deliberations and pressure to ensure that a number of Uyghur groups, who had fled around the same time to both Thailand and Malaysia, would not have their rights under the Refugee Convention contravened. It was reported on 13 March 2014 that a group of 62 Uyghurs were arrested by Malaysian border control personnel while attempting to cross into Thailand on the northern border. Around the same time, another 200 were found in a human smuggling camp in southern Thailand and were transported to an immigration detention facility in Bangkok. Additionally, another group of 155 Uyghurs were found crammed into two tiny apartment units in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on 1 October 2014, and were subsequently transported to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport Immigration Detention Depot.

The July deportations came on the heels of Turkey’s acceptance of 173 Uyghurs from the same facility in Bangkok, suggesting that the move may have been in direct response to that action. This approach also indicates the likely intention of the Thai government to appease both the international community and their call to observe international law on the one hand, and heavy pressure from China—a major economic partner—on the other. The ostensible justification given by the Chinese government was that the group was made up of “illegal immigrants” who should therefore be rightfully returned to China in the meantime. As of early 2016, a group of around 50 Uyghurs remain in the Thai facility waiting to have their citizenship verified.

Consequences of this kind of treatment have included arbitrary arrest and detention, abuse, and typically involves dubious criminal charges leveled against those who are returned. The Chinese government has repeatedly called such escapees criminals and all those who are returned have been treated in such a manner in the past.