A group of 15 ethnic minority Uighurs fleeing China who were arrested in the Thai border province of Sa Kaeo on Sunday morning had been detained by authorities in Cambodia hours earlier, Human Rights Watch said yesterday.
Citing sources within the Thai government, the rights group’s statements match eyewitness reports from a Post source who saw a group of 15 people claiming to be Turkish in the custody of Poipet immigration police late on Saturday night.
The arrest of the group – 10 of whom are children – on Sunday morning in Thailand was a large mixed-agency operation involving soldiers, immigration officials, village militia and local district officials, Human Rights Watch said.
Thai officials also confirmed that the group had previously been held by Cambodian authorities, said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director.
“What’s clear is this group of 15 Uyghurs is the same group that was detained on the Cambodian side of the border by the authorities, and somehow soon thereafter they ended up in Thailand, where they were arrested,” he said in an email, using an alternative spelling for Uighur.
“Given the scale of the Thai operation, we suspect – but cannot confirm – that there was some sort of communication between the Cambodian and Thai sides of the border about this group.”
In recent days, Cambodian government officials have repeatedly denied or declined to comment on allegations that a group of 15 foreigners were even arrested in Poipet on Saturday, let alone deported.
But according to a local source who spoke on condition of anonymity, immigration police in Poipet on Saturday night detained a group of five adults and 10 children who claimed they were Turkish.
“On that night, I saw border police bring them to the immigration police station. They were put into a room for a while before they put them in an SUV and drove away. I saw them with my own eyes, there were 15 people [in total], nine males and six females, and 10 of them were children,” the source said.
According to Thai media reports cited by The New York Times, the Uighur group had travelled from Vietnam to Cambodia and were planning on moving through Thailand to Malaysia and then, hopefully, Turkey, which shares ethnic links with Uighurs and is home to a large Uighur community.
On March 13, a group of 220 suspected Uighurs found by authorities in a jungle camp in southern Thailand claimed to be Turkish and asked to be repatriated to Turkey.
Another group of 112 people suspected to be Uighurs were detained in Sa Kaeo in the days before the 15 were arrested, according to HRW, though it is unclear whether they also travelled through Cambodia.
The Uighurs, a mostly Muslim minority group, say they are oppressed by the Chinese government in the northwestern Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where violence between the minority and ethnic Han Chinese has been increasing in recent years.
In 2009, Cambodia became the subject of international outcry when it forcibly returned 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China even though they had been registered as “persons of concern” by the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has since been shuttered.
Yesterday, So Channary, commander of the 911 border police unit in Banteay Meanchey province, said his forces had not recently arrested any groups of foreigners attempting to enter Thailand.
“We have not recently arrested any foreigners trying to cross the border or trying to get in and out of Cambodia or Thailand. The situation along the border here is very complicated and not easy to cross. We are strictly monitoring along the border.”
Immigration police chief Pin Piseth said: “I have no idea. I don’t know anything, and I have no comment.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said although he had not heard about the case, if people illegally tried to enter Cambodia, they should be deported back to where they arrived from.
”Whoever gave them the chance or opportunity to get through; those countries have to take them back. We are not a final destination,” he said.
“Don’t blame Cambodia for this.”
Vivian Tan, a spokesperson at the UNHCR in Bangkok, said yesterday she had not heard about the group of 15 being arrested.
While adding she did not “want to speculate”, Tan said that if the group had told Cambodian authorities they wanted to seek asylum when they were arrested, the government may have violated international customary law if they turned them away.
“Forcing out these 15 Uyghurs once again shows how incredibly deficient Cambodia’s refugee protection procedures are,” HRW’s Robertson said.
Cambodia is a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol.
Cheng Hong Bo, spokesman at the Chinese embassy, said yesterday that he had no information about the group, or whether they had been detained in Cambodia.
“Actually, if the Cambodian authorities have the [people] that you mentioned, they would inform us. But right now we don’t have that kind of information,” he said.
According to the US State Department, 16 of the Uighurs that were returned to China from Cambodia in 2009 have been given prison sentences ranging from 16 years to life.
Rights groups have called for all the Uighurs recently arrested in Thailand to not be sent back to China and to have access to UN asylum application procedures.
Alim Seytoff, spokesman at the World Uyghur Congress, could not be reached for comment yesterday, but on Tuesday he said he did not believe there were links between the group of 15 and the previous group of 112 that was also arrested in Sa Kaeo.
“We don’t believe they are related to the first group. Due to severe Chinese repression of the Uyghur people in East Turkestan, we are witnessing an exodus of refugees from China. We hope Thailand and other Southeastern Asian countries will work with UNHCR and settle them in a safe third country,” he said.