BANGKOK - The U.N.’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is pressing Thailand to allow more than 50 ethnic Uighurs to travel to Turkey despite pressure from Beijing to have them returned to China. Thai authorities are already under severe criticism for forcibly returning a group of Uighurs to China earlier this month.
The secretary general of Thailand’s National Security Council, Anusit Kunakorn, this week tried to allay fears over China’s treatment of the returned Uighurs by traveling to the detention center in Xinjiang where they are being held.
He told Thai reporters that the 109 ethnic Uighurs are living in good conditions, calling the facilities “clean and neat.” He said 13 of those being held in what he called a “rehabilitation center” are being investigated for their alleged involvement in terrorism.
Although the secretary general provided photographs of some of the facility, he said he was barred from photographing the Uighurs. China has refused to allow media or international organizations to visit the center.
The Thai government had been in lengthy negotiations with both China and Turkey for more than a year after more than 350 Uighurs were found in hiding in Thailand and were held in immigration detention centers.
Some 180 Uighurs, mostly women and children, were sent to Turkey after receiving legal immigration documents. Turkey routinely provides Uighurs with such documents because of traditional cultural links and claims the Muslim minority faces persecution in China.
But more than 50 Uighurs remain detained at a Bangkok immigration detention center.
UNHCR Thailand spokesperson Vivian Tan said the Thai Government should allow the group to be free to travel.
“Well, basically, UNHCR has appealed to the government of Thailand to refrain from deporting people forcibly in the future. We’re urging the government to allow people who are still here (in Thailand) to deport voluntarily to a place where the government is willing to receive them,” said Tan.
China accuses the Uighur people of links to terrorist organizations, such as Islamic State, and separatists.
Benjamin Zawacki, a human rights advocate and lawyer, said Thailand failed to allow the refugees appropriate screening by an international organizations before being sent to China.
“Basically the customary international law regardless of Thailand’s non-signatory status to the refugee convention – is that until and unless that screening is done there is a presumption that people who do have that well-founded fear [of persecution] and they can’t be sent back until that determination is made,” said Zawacki.
The Uighurs in Thailand have long denied that they are from China, instead insisting that they are from Turkey. Turkish diplomatic officials have visited them and provided them with legal travel documents, but Thai officials have stalled allowing them to return under pressure from China.
Thai official sources told VOA that the Uighur’s strategy meant the 350 had failed to seek asylum status in Thailand, weakening their case for U.N. protection.
In the face of international criticism over its handling of the issue, Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) called an urgent meeting of officials from national security, immigration, and foreign ministry, as well as from the United Nations and human rights organizations.
Commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara said processing future refugee claims must be based on human rights principles, adding the more than 50 Uighurs in Thailand should be sent to Turkey.
“We’re not sure, but we must make a strong suggestion to the government the last 58 (sic) person is very important to show to every country that the Thai government is still depending on the human rights principle. That’s the strong suggestion to them but you know that the NHRC, we cannot command them,” said Niran.
Reports say China is maintaining pressure on Thailand to repatriate the Uighur to China.
But Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has declined to comment on their eventual destination, only saying that the remaining Uighurs will remain in Thailand, “for a while.”