BANGKOK: Thailand on Thursday said it had deported around 100 Uighur Muslims detained in the kingdom since last year to China, in a move sparking fears for the safety of the asylum-seekers.
The fate of scores of suspected Uighurs — a Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim minority in China's northwestern Xinjiang region who have long chafed under Chinese control — has hung in the balance since they illegally entered the kingdom in March 2014.
The asylum-seekers, who presented themselves to police as Turkish, had been held in detention as Thai authorities determined their nationalities amid a tussle between Turkey and China over where they should be moved.
On Thursday, Thai government spokesman Werachon Sukhondapatipak told reporters that "some 100" Uighurs were deported to China on Wednesday after finding "clear evidence they are Chinese nationals".
He also revealed that an earlier group of around "170 Uighurs" were repatriated to Turkey in late June — the first public announcement by Thai authorities of both deportations.
The legal wrangle between Turkey and China over the group came to the fore in March when both countries sought the repatriation of a family of 17 that claimed they were Turkish.
Worasit Piriyawiboon, a human rights lawyer that was representing the Teklimakan family, said that 15 had been deported to Turkey in June. He did not know the fate of the other two members.
Uighurs in Xinjiang, who number around 10 million, say they face cultural and religious restrictions.
China has recently launched a wide-ranging crackdown in the region in the face of rising violence which authorities blame on Islamist separatists.
Under pressure from Beijing, countries including Cambodia, Malaysia and Pakistan have all in recent years forcibly returned fleeing Uighurs to China.
In Bangkok on Thursday, Werachon said that Thailand had expressed its concerns over the safety of the group to China.
"China agreed to take care of their safety and will now put them through the judicial process. It has reassured Thailand about its humanitarian principles," he said.
But rights groups lambasted the move by Thailand's generals, who have ruled the country since seizing power in a coup last May, as a "violation of international law".
Thailand's military rulers have "secretly and forcibly sent as many as 115 ethnic Uighurs to China, where they could face serious human rights abuses", Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch told AFP.
He described as "ludicrous" the government spokesman's comments that Thailand was reassured about the deported group's safety.
Around 50 Uighur Muslims still remain in Thai detention, Werachon said, as their nationalities are determined.
Earlier Sek Wannamethee, spokesman for the kingdom's foreign ministry, said the earlier group of migrants sent to Turkey numbered 172 and were comprised of women and children.
US condemns forced deportation
In a statement issued on Thursday, the United States condemned Thailand’s forced deportation of over 100 ethnic Uighurs to China, where they could face harsh treatment and a lack of due process.
“This action runs counter to Thailand’s international obligations as well as its long-standing practice of providing safe haven to vulnerable persons. We remain deeply concerned about the protection of all asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants in Thailand, and we strongly urge the Government of Thailand, and other governments in countries where Uighurs have taken refuge, not to carry out further forced deportations of ethnic Uighurs,” said the statement added.
The US urged Chinese authorities to uphold international norms and to ensure transparency, due process, and proper treatment of these individuals.
“We will continue to stress to all parties concerned the importance of respecting human rights and honoring their obligations under international law. We have consistently urged Thai authorities at all levels to adhere to Thailand’s international obligations under the Convention Against Torture, which mandates that countries refrain from refoulement. International humanitarian organiaations should also have unfettered access to them to ensure that their humanitarian and protection needs are met. We urge Thailand to allow those remaining ethnic Uighurs to depart voluntarily to a country of their choice.”