BANGKOK — Thailand sentenced dozens of asylum seekers, believed to be from China’s persecuted Uighur Muslim minority, on Saturday, March 15, amid calls from the US and human rights groups not to forcibly return them to China.
“Thai authorities should realize that Uighurs forced back to China disappear into a black hole,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch said in a statement published on its website.
“They need to allow all members of this group access to a fair process to determine their claims based on their merits, not on Beijing’s demands.”
The group of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim, Turkic minority that originates from western China, was discovered on March 13, 2014, in a jungle camp in Thailand’s Songkhla province.
The group includes 78 men, 60 women and 82 children.
The asylum seekers, who appeared to be preparing to head elsewhere, presented themselves as Turkish.
But US-based activists have identified them as Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim group from China's northwestern Xinjiang region.
On the first official move, the Thai authorities sentenced the group to a fine of 4,000 baht (about RM406) each by a court in southern Thailand.
The men will be detained by immigration and the women and children will be taken to a shelter, Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot told Agence France Presse (AFP) by telephone.
Uighur Muslims are a Turkish-speaking minority of eight million in the northwestern Xinjiang region.
Xinjiang, which activists call East Turkestan, has been autonomous since 1955 but continues to be the subject of massive security crackdowns by Chinese authorities.
Rights groups accuse Chinese authorities of religious repression against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang in the name of counter terrorism.
As the position of Uighur refugees remain unclear, US State Department has urged Thailand “to provide full protection” to the asylum seekers.
"We are concerned about Uighurs generally (and) welcome reports that these Uighurs were rescued," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Friday in Washington, without directly addressing the possibility of the group's repatriation to China.
"We're encouraging Thailand to make sure their humanitarian needs are met."
The Uighur American Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, has also voiced concern over the group.
The group urged Thailand to cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“This group of Uighurs should not be a test of Thailand's relationship with China, but a test of Thailand's ability to follow international refugee standards,” said association president Alim Seytoff.
In recent years there have been multiple incidents of Uighurs being forcibly returned to China in violation of international law, particularly from Southeast Asia, a common route for people fleeing China.
In December 2009, Cambodia forcibly returned 20 Uighurs despite the fact that the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had already issued “persons of concern” letters to all members of the group.
On December 31, 2012, Malaysia deported six Uighur men back to China. The six had been detained earlier in 2012, allegedly for attempting to leave Malaysia on false passports.
Thailand has long been a hub for people trafficking, with thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burma believed to have passed through the kingdom in recent years.
In 2013, many Rohingya refugees accused Thai officers of selling members of the persecuted minority to human traffickers.
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