CHINESE authorities have sent a diplomatic note to the Cambodian government regarding 22 Uighur asylum seekers who arrived here from China last month, Foreign Ministry officials confirmed Monday, raising fresh concerns among rights groups that Beijing is seeking their deportation.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the ministry, said the note was received from Chinese officials last week, but he could not confirm its exact contents.
“The note from the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh refers to the Uighur Chinese, but I don’t know in detail what the note says,” he said.
The group of Muslim Uighurs, from China’s restive northwest Xinjiang province, arrived in Cambodia at various points last month in a bid to apply for political asylum through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Uighur rights groups have said members of the group fear retaliation from Chinese authorities after they witnessed clashes between Chinese security forces and Uighur demonstrators in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, in July.
Dolkun Isa, secretary general of the World Uighur Congress, said that he feared the note was an attempt for Beijing to secure the return of the Uighurs after a government crackdown on the July protests.
“China is afraid that if people go to another country, the international community will know about China’s policy towards the Uighur people,” he said, adding that he expected “strong pressure” to prevent the Uighurs’ gaining asylum in a third country.
“The problem is a heavy one for China,” Dolkun Isa said.
When contacted Monday, Qian Hai, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, refused to answer questions about the existence of the note, but analysts said Beijing is likely to make a strong push for the return of the Uighurs.
“Normally, China takes a very hard line on Uighurs who seek out shelter in other countries, as China does not admit that there are conditions in Xinjiang, where most Uighurs live, that can be oppressive and might cause Uighurs to flee the country,” Josh Kurlantzick, a China expert at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, said by email.
The Uighur American Association says that in late 2001 and early 2002, Nepal forcibly returned at least two Uighurs to Chinese authorities in Xinjiang, one of whom was executed in 2003 despite his having registered with the UNHCR office in Kathmandu.
Kurlantzick said the Chinese government has pushed hard to have Uighurs sent back to China from Central Asia and has also protested “aggressively” against the transfer of Uighurs held by the US government at Guantanamo Bay to third countries.
On December 8, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a news briefing in Beijing that officials were investigating reports of the asylum claims filed by the Uighurs in Cambodia, emphasising Beijing’s “good cooperative relationship” with Cambodia.
Kitty McKinsey, the spokeswoman for UNHCR in Bangkok, said the Cambodian government is putting in place a “national asylum procedure” to review refugee claims with UNHCR’s assistance.
“UNHCR stands ready to assist the government in ensuring that any individuals at particular risk are given priority consideration in the assessment of their claims,” she added.
The Uighur asylum bid has also attracted attention among Cambodia’s diplomatic corps, who say they are monitoring the situation closely. One diplomatic source said the government “should act on this case, like any other case, in accordance with its international obligations”.
Koy Kuong said the government had yet to make a decision on the case of the Uighurs, adding that they had been classified as persons of concern by UNHCR and were being interviewed about their status.
“The UNHCR is cooperating with the Cambodian government, with relevant competent authorities, to interview all of them to find if they have the status of real refugees,” he said. “We are waiting for a clear result from the interviews.”
Though the arrival of the Uighurs arguably puts Cambodia in a difficult position between a key international patron and its obligations under international law, others say the government’s handling of the issue has been encouraging.
“The stance that the government is taking, which is that they will cooperate with UNHCR in assessing the asylum claims of the 22 Uighurs, is a very good sign,” said Sara Colm, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The Cambodian government has consistently stated that it will back up the UNHCR in [its] assessments of the asylum claims of the 22 Uighurs, and it’s important that Cambodia’s development partners strongly support [it].”