BANGKOK— More than 400 suspected Uighurs from China, including young children, have been apprehended in Thailand in recent weeks and are waiting to find out their fate. Chinese authorities are pressing the Thai government to send them back to China, but those detained deny they are Chinese Uighurs and want to go to Turkey.
Diplomatic discussions with Thai officials about the 426 people in detention have been initiated by several countries, including China and the United States.
Two groups are being held; one in the Thai capital, the other in the southern province Songhkla.
The largest group was discovered during a March 12 raid on a trafficking camp on a rubber plantation.
Authorities say it is unprecedented for such a large, relatively prosperous and varied group of suspected Uighurs, which includes dozens of toddlers and their burqa-clad mothers, to have been apprehended in Thailand.
Investigators are certain they are mostly Uighurs from China’s Xinjiang region, where the ethnic minority faces discrimination and religious oppression.
China has announced it is cracking down on separatists in the region where there have been fatal clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese.
Phil Robertson, the Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch, is calling on Thailand not to send the families back to China because of the risk of persecution. He said there are signs that Chinese authorities have been mischaracterizing the refugees to try to clear the way for their return.
“We’ve already seen various different press accounts coming out from unnamed Thai officials that frankly have Chinese fingerprints on them that these people are terrorists, that they’re somehow intending ill will to Thailand. This is a group that is primarily made up of women and children. The concern is that China is trying to demonize them to try to pressure Thailand to send them back,” said Robertson.
Officials from Turkey’s embassy in Bangkok have spoken with representatives of the groups, and reports have said the diplomats are skeptical of them being from Turkey because they did not speak Turkish well.
But negotiations are under way for some or all of them to go to Turkey, a predominately Muslim country where many Uighurs live.
If that fails, Robertson said, the relevant agency of the United Nations needs to intervene.
“If, on the other hand, Turkey decides that they are not Turkish nationals, then it becomes a matter of Thailand needing to allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to have unfettered access to these people to conduct refugee status determination if in fact, as we suspect, they are Uighurs,” said Robertson.
Some activists believe the group was smuggled together from Yunnan in southwestern China overland via Vietnam and Cambodia to Thailand, intending Malaysia as their next way station.
Published reports characterize Kuala Lumpur as a favorite departure point to Europe for those with stolen or forged travel documents. Two Iranians on the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were attempting to get to Europe using stolen passports.