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.