A SENIOR government official says the UN’s refugee agency did not act quickly enough to process the asylum claims of 20 ethnic Uighurs deported by Cambodian authorities on Saturday night, an act that has prompted a storm of international condemnation.
Speaking to reporters prior to a ceremony for the signing of aid agreements with visiting Chinese officials on Monday, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith accused the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of using the Uighurs as political pawns.
“UNHCR is the laziest office in Cambodia,” he said. “If they [granted refugee status] within a few days, those people would have been moved to other places, but they were slow and kept them for about a month.”
He also accused the agency of leaking the story to the press in order to “beat a drum” against the government, forcing authorities into opening investigations into the asylum seekers.
The Uighurs, part of a group of 22 who had applied for refugee status through UNHCR, were detained by Cambodian police on Friday and forcibly deported to China the following night. Two Uighurs remain on the run.
When contacted on Tuesday, Kitty McKinsey, Asia spokeswoman for UNHCR, declined to comment on Khieu Kanharith’s comments.
Saturday’s deportation has provoked harsh criticism from international rights activists and foreign governments.
In a statement issued on Monday, the Swedish presidency of the European Union said it was “deeply concerned” about the deportation, adding that it showed “a worrying disregard for Cambodia’s obligations under international law”. The US government and UN agencies have also voiced outrage over the deportation.
On Tuesday, refugee workers called on international governments and the UN to pressure Beijing to ensure the Uighurs were not mistreated on their return to China.
“Seeing that they were under the joint protection of the government and UNHCR, [and detained] from a safe site identified by UNHCR, I’m sure UNHCR in China would feel a strong obligation to ask for access to these people,” said Sister Denise Coughlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Services, which was involved in the Uighur case.
She also expressed concerns for the two Uighurs who disappeared a few days before the deportation, saying she was “praying for their safety”.
Sok Vichea, director of the Cambodian Refugee Office at the Ministry of Interior, said he was not authorised to comment about the two Uighurs.
Also Tuesday, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping departed from Cambodia after a three-day visit in which he and local officials agreed to US$1.2 billion in economic aid, an amount that some critics have said was partially a reward for the sudden Uighur deportation.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu described such accusations as “groundless”, saying the Uighurs had violated both Cambodian and Chinese immigration laws.
“This aid has no strings attached,” she said during a regular news briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP