THAILAND has sent more than 100 Uighur refugees back to China, drawing harsh criticism from the UN refugee agency and human rights groups over concerns that ethnic minority members face persecution by the government in Beijing.
Protesters in Turkey, which had accepted an earlier batch of Uighur refugees from Thailand, ransacked the Thai consulate overnight.
Turkey’s foreign ministry condemned Thailand, saying the deportation violated international humanitarian laws and came despite “numerous initiatives” by Turkey to prevent their repatriation. The statement, which claimed 115 had been deported, said Turkey would continue to monitor their fate.
Thailand’s deputy government spokesman, Major-General Verachon Sukhonthapatipak, said Thailand had assurances from Chinese authorities about the safety of 109 Uighurs.
However, in Beijing, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China would take action against those suspected of breaking the law.
Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said that, as a third country, the matter was not Thailand’s problem, and that the place they were sent to – he did not name China – would take care of it according to its justice system.
“I’m asking, if we don’t do it this way, then how would we do it?” he said. “Or do you want us to keep them for ages until they have children for three generations?”
He said Thailand had good relations with Turkey, adding: “I want to explain to the Muslims that we do not mean to hurt anyone. We want to create peace as much as possible.”
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was “shocked” and considered Thailand’s action “a flagrant violation of international law”.
The Uighur group who were sent to China had been in Thailand for more than a year, along with others who had fled China and claimed to be Turkish, Maj-Gen Verachon said. Thai authorities sought to verify their nationalities before relocating them, he said.
“We found that about 170 of them were Turkish, so they were recently sent to Turkey,” he said. “And about 100 were Chinese, so they were sent to China as of this morning, under the agreement that their safety is guaranteed according to humanitarian principles.”
He denied unconfirmed reports from Uighur activists that the refugees had resisted deportation and some had been hurt.
The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China’s far west Xinjiang region. The group has complained of cultural and religious suppression as well as economic marginalisation under Chinese rule.
Volker Türk, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, said: “I strongly urge the Thai authorities to investigate this matter and appeal to Thailand to honour its fundamental international obligations.”
He said such deportations violated the right to protection against return to a country where a person had reason to fear persecution.
The UN agency said it had repeatedly raised the matter of the Uighur refugees with the Thai government and “in response, the agency was given assurances that the matter would be handled in accordance with international legal standards, and that the group would continue to receive protection”.
China says the Uighurs left the country illegally. It has accused Uighur separatists of terrorism in Xinjiang, where ethnic violence has left hundreds dead over the past two years.