News / Asia

As China Cracks Down in Xinjiang, Uighurs Turn Up in SE Asia

Ethnic Uighur Muslims line up beside a police van in Khlong Hoi Khong of southern Songkhla province, Thailand, Mar. 15, 2014.
Ethnic Uighur Muslims line up beside a police van in Khlong Hoi Khong of southern Songkhla province, Thailand, Mar. 15, 2014.
Gabrielle Paluch
Ethnic Uighur Muslims in China have long had tense relations with the government, which they accuse of policies aimed at their political and cultural marginalization. For years, some Uighurs have fled China to live abroad. But as China carries out another security crackdown in Xinjiang, activists say rising numbers are arriving in Southeast Asia, where they face an uncertain future.

Thai immigration officials say there are at least 400 Uighurs in detention in Thailand, and more believed to be in hiding. Some 29 Uighurs were reported discovered near the Cambodian border earlier this year. In Vietnam, at least 21 Uighurs were involved in a gunfight near a border checkpoint last month, where they were resisting deportation back to China. And in Malaysia, activists say there are at least a few hundred Uighurs either trying to settle down or seeking asylum abroad.

Thailand is no stranger to illegal immigrants, with hundreds of thousands of Burmese and Cambodia migrant workers. But immigration official Thatchai Pitaneelaboot said the country has never seen so many illegal Uighur migrants, many of whom are women and children. He said across Thailand, all of them exhibit remarkably similar, disciplined behavior, refusing to communicate with anyone.

“Absolutely they act differently. They don't talk much they don't speak to strangers even officers they don't talk they don't talk to officers and rarely they'll communicate with the others. And they're kind of quiet usually they pray and they keep quiet not like Rohingya,” he said.

Thatchai said he believed the Uighurs have tapped into existing human smuggling and trafficking networks used by Burma's ethnic Rohingya Muslim migrants, that rely on two Thai trafficking kingpins in southern Thailand.

The Uighurs' arrival in southeast Asia has raised questions about whether the security crackdown in China is causing an exodus. Activists said years of repressive policies that limit educations and professional opportunities, and heavy handed security measures in Uighur population centers, are leading more people to flee abroad.

VOA spoke with one exiled Uighur who helped illegal migrants before he himself sought asylum in Canada. He said Chinese security policies have hardened since the terrorist attacks, leading more Uighurs to flee abroad, following escape routes used by persecuted Falun Gong practitioners.

"Most of them are women and children. Some of woman, [their] husband is in jail, some of them killed by Chinese police. Some of their family escape because most of them living in countryside not city they coming there and then inside inland China, Chinese smugglers [are] trying to help them. Because that's why they try to contact with any Falun Gong peoples who escape from China," he said.

He wished to remain anonymous for fear of government retribution against family members remaining in China.

China accuses some exile Uighur groups of supporting secession or terrorism, and Beijing presses foreign governments to return illegal Uighur migrants. Neighboring countries have largely complied in recent years, despite complaints from human rights groups.

But there has been no decision yet for groups now in detention in Thailand and Malaysia. The Uighurs say they want to live in Turkey, which has cultural and linguistic similarities, and a government that has been willing to risk the ire of China to accept them.

The Uighur World Congress in Turkey now estimates the Uighur community there to number as many as as 30,000.

The Turkish government has not yet said it will accept the latest batch of asylum seekers, but 35 Uighurs departing from Kuala Lumpur on March 25 were allowed to pass through immigration after spending 18 days stranded at the airport. A Turkish diplomat in Bangkok told VOA that the Turkish government "cares deeply for this group."

Yitzchak Shichor specializes in Sino-Turkish relations at the University of Haifa. He said that China could punish Turkey for accepting the Uighurs, using their trade imbalance to put economic pressure on Ankara.

"The other thing is military relations. As you know, the Turkish government decided to buy a Chinese missile system. The decision is not yet final because it creates a lot of problems for Turkey in terms of its membership in NATO, but this is again something that is on the line, so there are various ways the Chinese can apply pressure on Turkey. The Chinese refuse the Turkish request to stop conflict in Xinjinag, so there are many things whereby the Chinese can apply pressure on Turkey," he said.

For now, Thai immigration authorities said they were waiting for proof of citizenship before the government decides whether to turn the group over to Chinese or Turkish authorities.

According to Uighur activists, the fate of the current detainees in southern Thailand will be a strong indication of whether or not more will risk the journey through Southeast Asia.

You May Like

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs