Despite international protests, Thailand keeps Uyghur refugees in overcrowded detention camps and threatens to send them back to China.
June 20 is World Refugee Day. It should be a day of hope for refugees throughout the world. Not for Uyghur Muslims who escaped from China and sought asylum in Thailand. They live in overcrowded, unsanitary detention centers, in fear of being deported back to China. Chinese pressures seem to weigh more on Thailand than international appeals in favor of the Uyghurs.
In a declaration for the World Refugee Day, Omer Kanat, Director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), stated that, “the Uyghur refugees held in Thailand should be freed. They have been deprived of their liberty for approximately five years and it is time to end the pain of their uncertainty. If these Uyghurs were returned to China, they would be delivered into the hands of their persecutors. Their fear of the Chinese government is obvious.”
Mr. Kanat added that Thailand “should follow the commendable example of Germany and Sweden and end deportations of Uyghurs to China.” Uyghurs who escaped from China have been held since 2014 in detention camps in Songkhla and Sa Kaeo provinces.
In July 2015, following an international campaign in their favor, 173 Uyghurs were released to start new lives in Turkey. But a week later, the Thai government forcibly returned over 100 refugees to China in violation of the non-refoulement principle. The U.S. State Department, the European Union and The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights all criticized Thailand. The Turkish Foreign Ministry also condemned the action and said it had occurred despite Turkish government attempts to stop the deportations.
A Thai delegation was invited to China in late July 2015 and claimed the returned Uyghur refugees were “well-treated.” However, details on how the CCP stage-managed the visit and granted the delegation access to the returned Uyghurs were not disclosed to the public, and we have all reasons to doubt that this was nothing more than a propaganda stunt.
In January 2015, the Uyghur refugees in Thailand complained to a visiting Istanbul-based Uyghur journalist about health problems and overcrowded conditions in the detention facilities. Three Uyghurs, including a three-year-old boy, had already died despite the efforts of groups, such as the Thai Muslim Society, to provide relief. On August 1, 2018, Bilal, a 27-year-old Uyghur refugee, died in an immigration detention facility.
The 49 Uyghurs remaining in Thailand have resorted to extreme measures to force the Thai authorities into a decision on their cases. Some went on hunger strike and turned to self-harm in protest and frustration at the length of their detention.
In November 2017, 20 Uyghurs broke out of their detention facility, 11 of whom fled to Malaysia. In a welcome move, Malaysia released to Turkey the 11 Uyghurs. Explaining the action, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said, “They have done nothing wrong in this country, so they are released.” Thailand should now in turn put an end to the mistreatment of the Uyghurs who remain in the country.