NATIONAL police said Wednesday that they had begun the hunt for two Uighur asylum seekers who avoided the deportation of 20 of their countrymen on Saturday, and a top UN official added his voice to those criticising the Cambodian government over the deportation.
Sok Phal, deputy national police commissioner, said the two missing Uighurs were being investigated in the same manner as all foreigners suspected of breaching the country’s immigration laws.
“Our police forces are working to make an arrest of all immigrants who entered Cambodia illegally. These two Uighur men are also under our investigation,” he said, adding that around 40 foreign nationals were in custody for entering the country illegally.
The two escaped Uighurs have been unaccounted for since last week, before 20 others were taken to a site jointly monitored by the government and the UN’s refugee agency on December 16.
Rights activists say Cambodian authorities went to the site two days later and detained the 20 at gunpoint before putting them on a chartered plane to China the next night.
All 22 Uighurs had applied for refugee status through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Phnom Penh after fleeing ethnic violence in China’s restive Xinjiang province in July.
On Tuesday, Sister Denise Coughlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Services Cambodia, which was involved with the Uighur case, said she was “praying” for the safety of the two missing Uighurs. “I can’t imagine that Cambodia is a safe place for them anymore, so I hope they’ve escaped,” she said.
On Wednesday, an online magazine run by an exiled Cambodian journalist living in Norway cited police sources as saying the escapees were two children, including a six-month-old infant, who were “suspected of being spirited out by UNHCR agents” prior to the deportation.
Coughlan, however, described the rumour as “completely false”, adding that the children in question were still with their parents at the safe house prior to their detention by police on Friday.
An open letter sent by Amnesty International to senior Chinese officials on Wednesday also said “two very young children” were among the 20 individuals sent back to China, expressing “particular concern” about their plight.
Christophe Peschoux, country director of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said he knew nothing about the whereabouts of the missing Uighurs, and described the infant rumour as “conjecture”.
But he said the government is still bound by its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention in its handling of the missing asylum seekers. “If the Cambodian authorities are to apply what they are obliged to under international law, which should have been done for the 20, they should help ensure a process with UNHCR in order to determine their refugee status,” he said.
Only after a fair process found they were ineligible for asylum status, and opportunities for appeal were exhausted, would the government be justified in declaring the two illegal immigrants, he said.
Kitty McKinsey, Asia spokeswoman for UN High Commissioner for Refugees, repeated earlier statements that the agency did not know the whereabouts of the missing Uighurs.
“We had assisted the government in jointly registering them, but as in other countries, we are not able to accept responsibility for policing the whereabouts of specific asylum seekers or refugees,” she said.
The announcement comes as senior UN officials weighed in on the Uighur case, expressing “grave concerns” for the fate of the 20 following their arrival back in China.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, Manfred Nowak, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, said that due to reports of the “severe torture” and execution of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province, Cambodia’s deportation of the asylum seekers had breached its obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture.
“The situation is aggravated by the fact that I had reminded the government of Cambodia beforehand by means of an urgent communication of their international obligations,” he said.