In southern Thailand, more than 200 suspected ethnic Uighur Muslims are being held by Thai immigration authorities who say they will deport the men, women and children to China. But, rights groups are calling for humanitarian protection for the group.
Thai immigration police said the 78 men, 60 women and 82 children were believed to be ethnic Uighurs from China's western Xinijang region. They were found hiding in a rubber plantation in Thailand's southern Songkla province.
The group has spoken with officials from the Turkish Embassy, which, along with the United Nations refugee agency, has been providing assistance. They have refused to talk with Thai or Chinese Embassy officials.
Thai immigration officers said they would press charges against the group for illegal entry to Thailand and call for their deportation.
But U.S.-based Human Rights Watch
is calling for the United Nations to assess the group's refugee status and ensure they are not forcibly returned to China.
Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with the rights group, said Thailand had an international obligation to ensure the safety of the Uighurs.
"Thailand has an obligation under international customary law not to return people to a place where they would face danger. So that is a very core principle according to international law. So even though Thailand is not a party to the UN refugee convention it still has an obligation under law not to send people back to face dangers," said Sunai.
The U.S. State Department also urged Thailand to provide protection to the group and ensure their humanitarian needs were met.
Thai police reports said the Uighurs left China's Xinijiang region by air to the southern Chinese city of Kunming, then went south through neighboring countries Burma or Laos, or possibly Vietnam and Cambodia before reaching Thailand. The next step was to Malaysia and a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Turkey.
Trafficking gangs, said to be operating out of Malaysia, charge as much as $40,000 for each person.
Rights groups warn of increasing numbers of ethnic Uighurs fleeing China amid rising tensions in Xinijiang. Chinese authorities have tightened security there following attacks by suspected Uighurs on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and more recently at Kunming railway station that left 29 people dead and 140 wounded.
Human Rights Watch said Uighurs faced ethnic discrimination, religious repression and increasing cultural suppression by Chinese authorities who say they are fighting against separatism and terrorism.
In recent years, despite efforts by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees
(UNHCR) to intervene, Cambodia forcibly returned 20 Uighurs to China in 2009, while Malaysia deported six men in late 2012.