AGROUP of ethnic Uighurs who arrived in Cambodia earlier this month seeking political asylum are suspected criminals, a Chinese government spokesman said on Tuesday, warning that the UN’s refugee-protection mechanism should not be used to “shelter” those accused of crimes.
Twenty-two 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).
“These people ... are involved in crimes, and relevant Chinese authorities are verifying and investigating the situation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a news briefing on Tuesday, ahead of a visit next week by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping.
“I would like to stress that the international refugee-protection system should not be a haven for criminals to evade legal sanctions,” she added.
Uighur rights groups say the asylum seekers fear retaliation from Chinese authorities after witnessing clashes between Chinese security forces and Uighur demonstrators in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, on July 5.
China has handed down at least 17 death sentences for actions during the July rioting, which Beijing claims left nearly 200 dead and 1,600 injured.
Ilshat Hassan, director of interior affairs for the World Uighur Congress, described the Chinese comments as “ridiculous”, and said none of the 22 Uighurs in Cambodia – including a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old baby – had been involved in any activities that are crimes under international law.
“According to [Chinese] law, any Uighur dissident is a criminal,” he said.
Hassan expressed fears that Chinese pressure could force the Cambodian government to deport the Uighurs, but said the country, which suffered “inhuman treatment” at the hands of the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime, should adhere to its international refugee obligations.
“I hope the Cambodian government shows to the world that they are a responsible government and they abide by international law and respect human rights,” he said.
Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR’s spokesman in Bangkok, would not comment directly on the Chinese remarks. She said the 1951 Refugee Convention – to which Cambodia and China are both signatories – contains “clear definitions” of who is eligible for refugee status, but that governments and UN agencies sometimes fail to agree on the specifics.
“UNHCR’s mission is to provide protection for refugees all over the world who can’t get adequate protection from their own governments, and it sometimes happens that UNHCR and government disagree on who is eligible,” she said.
Despite China’s comments, government officials said no decision will be made on the case until the status of the Uighurs is determined through interviews being carried out with UNHCR.
“The Cambodian government has not made any decision yet. We are waiting until interviews are done to find the real status of these people,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said.
WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP