HAT YAI, THAILAND — In southern Thailand, some 200 unidentified Muslim migrants seeking resettlement in Turkey are being held by Thai authorities. Many suspect they are Uighurs from China, and rights groups are pressing Thai authorities not to send them back. Authorities are trying to piece together who the people are and where they should be sent.
Unlike the thousands of Muslim Rohingya boat people fleeing persecution in Burma, this group has apparently paid traffickers to smuggle them overland.
Rights groups suspect they are Uighurs fleeing China’s western Xinjiang region, where the ethnic minority has long complained of discrimination and religious oppression from Chinese authorities.
But the group is not eager to talk, according to Ismail Mat-Adam, head of the National Islamic Association of Thailand, who has been able to communicate with some of them using Arabic dialects.
“We communicated to them through a translator and they want to go to Turkey. They won’t give us more information. We are concerned that they are withholding information from us. That’s why they are not comfortable to talk to us,” said Mat-Adam.
Security is tight around the shelter where 150 women and children are being held separate from the men.
As translators and aid workers try to sort the matter out, officials from China and Turkey have visited to assist Thai immigration authorities.
For Turkey’s first councilor to Thailand, Ahmet Idem Akay, the focus is more on ensuring proper care than identifying who they are.
“This is a humanitarian situation. There are more than 200 people here. More than half of them are children below the age of 18. There are quite a number of babies. There are pregnant women,” he said.
Meanwhile, China’s ambassador and a security team paid a quick visit to the detention center holding the men.
Rights groups fear that if the group is identified as Uighurs, they could face retribution if sent back to China. Chinese Ambassador to Thailand, Zhang Yimin said his visit is an act of goodwill.
“We don't want any countries to interfere with our business. We can control it. The other countries only try to press this issue so it can be used for political reasons,” he stated.
In the meantime, the detainees face an unknown future, joining increasing numbers of Rohingyas and other asylum seekers who are living in limbo in Thailand.