UNCERTAINTY surrounds the fate of a group of Uighurs who have travelled to Cambodia in a bid to seek political asylum – Cambodian officials say they have received no extradition request from the Chinese government, nor any formal notification from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that the agency is caring for the group.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said on Friday that despite reports in The Washington Post that 22 Uighurs were in Cambodia, the Cambodian office of UNHCR had not yet shared any details of the case.
“First we learned that there were 16 of them, but we don’t know how many more now,” he said.
“We don’t know when they arrived. Now they are under control of
UNHCR, [but] UNHCR has not yet sent any information to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he said.
Dolkun Isa, secretary general of the World Uighur Congress, said on Thursday that a group of Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang province in China’s restive northwest arrived in Cambodia at various times last week. He said the refugees feared retaliation from Chinese authorities after taking part in violent anti-China demonstrations in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, on July 5.
Qian Hai, spokesman of the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, said his government could not comment on the issue, as he had not received word of the Uighurs’ filing a formal asylum request. But he underlined Beijing’s “fundamental” policy that all of those involved in violating Chinese law should be brought to justice.
“For the July affair in Xinjiang, there were many violent criminal acts. It was planned by a very small amount of people who want to separate from China, who want to split China,” he said.
“Those people who have taken part in violent, criminal activities should be prosecuted according to Chinese law. They offended Chinese law and public security.”
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith and Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on Sunday that they had yet to receive any request from the Chinese government in relation to the Uighurs.
Given the close political relationship between Cambodia and Beijing, the arrival of the Uighurs has sparked concern that the Kingdom could come under pressure to return the Uighurs to Chinese custody.
Sara Colm, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that political pressure notwithstanding, Cambodia has an obligation to protect the Uighur asylum seekers under the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. “As a signatory, the Cambodian government should protect asylum seekers no matter what sort of other pressure the government comes under – this is an international obligation,” she said.
Colm said that although countries with strong economic and political links “complicated” asylum requests, the Cambodian government had in the past shown its willingness to resist the wishes of its close allies in order to protect would-be refugees.
“There have been occasions where the government has done the right thing and have based their actions on international law, not international pressure,” she said, citing the wave of Vietnamese Montagnards who sought asylum in the early 2000s.
At that time, she said, the government set up refugee centres in Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces in the face of strong protests from Hanoi.
Toshi Kawauchi, head of the Cambodia office of UNHCR, could not comment on the Uighurs’ case, but said his office works closely with the government to ensure the fulfilment of its obligations under the 1951 convention.
When asked what would happen in the event of a dispute between the UNHCR and the government, he said all cases were approached on a “case-by-case basis”.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE AND AFP