Depending on who is speaking, about 300 refugees being detained in Thailand are either committed terrorists or terrified families.
Although local media Monday uncritically repeated Chinese assertions they are “terrorists” on the way to train in Turkey, refugee advocates say the group widely believed to be Chinese Uighurs – most of whom are women and children – are fleeing violence and abuse at home in China’s Xinjiang province.
“The Chinese state has been reacting to Uighur nationalism with arrests, arbitrary detention, torture, use of deadly force, and enforced disappearances,” said Anoop Sukumarin, the coordinator for Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, a network of more than 140 refugee organization.
Since mid-March 220 have been held at the Songkhla Immigration Detention Centre in southern Thailand, with 150 women and children held separately in shelters of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.
Since then an additional 112 suspected Uighurs have been arrested in Sa Kaew Province near the Thai-Cambodian border and brought to Bangkok’s Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Centre.
Because they fear a forced return to China, the Uighurs won’t identify themselves as such, according to organizations working with urban refugees in Bangkok.
One lawyer that provides free counsel to asylum seekers, who didn’t want to be identified due to the nature of his work, noted: “They are so afraid of anyone having potential links with the Chinese authorities they don’t even want to [say that they are refugees].”
With a recent increase in persecution of the group in China, they risk abuse if they return, according to human rights groups, who are calling for their protection along with the U.S. government. Meanwhile the people in question are asking for help getting to Turkey, according to the Turkish embassy and the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation, a national advocate for urban refugees.
While the Uighurs have long faced persecution in ethnic Han-dominated China, tensions have increased in recent years.
The Muslim minority originates from Xinjiang autonomous province of China and have been blamed by the government for instigating many terrorist attacks in the past decade.
Chinese authorities have used this to justify arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture.
“The Chinese state has often labeled the uprisings as linked to Islamic terrorist groups, a claim that has not been substantiated,” Sukumarin said.
In addition, Beijing has been accused of undermining Uighur culture in Xianjing by encouraging the mass migration of Han Chinese, the country’s majority ethnic group, into the area.
The 8.5 million Chinese Uighurs now account for 45 percent of Xinjiang, down from 75 percent in 1945.
In 1997, calls for independence by Uighurs in Yining city were quashed by military gunfire, while in 2008 Uighur separatists were blamed for a terrorist attack on police in the city of Kashgar.
On March 1 a knife attack at a train station in Kunming, which killed 29 and injured more than 100, was attributed to Uighur separatists by Chinese authorities, prompting a further crackdown.
Human rights activists say that if the Uighers in Thailand are returned to China, they will be accused of involvement in these acts and automatically face abuse by the government.
“Since they fled China, if they were forced to return, they would automatically be suspected of political activities and separatism and most likely be arrested or tortured,” said Veerawit Tianchainan, executive director of the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation.
Fear of identification
Many of the group in Thailand, who the foundation believes were smuggled in from Xinjiang earlier this year, are asking to go to Turkey.
“They identify themselves as Turks and have asked to return to Turkey,” said Vivian Tan, the spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency in Asia Pacific.
Reportedly sensitive to the consequences for foreign relations, Thailand has yet to confirm their nationality and are allowing the Turkish consulate to meet with them.
“In the 14 provinces in the South this is the first time that we found this type of group. Right now we can’t really say whether they are Uighurs or not,” Songkhla Immigration Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot said.
The Uighurs, who speak a Turkic dialect, are reportedly able to communicate with the Turkish officials.
“Like in Thailand, in Turkey there are different dialects from region to region, so we can communicate in Turkish basically. And that’s all I can say,” Ahmet Akay, first councillor of the Turkish Embassy said.
However, human rights advocates are more vocal, saying the Uighurs’ fear of identification and repatriation to China is due to real fear.
“Those Uighurs who have been forced back from Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia previously disappear into the equivalent of a black hole, where information about them becomes very difficult to ascertain,” Robertson said.
Advocates are afraid Chinese authorities will push for their return.
“China has access to them, and we are very worried that this group is at threat for forced return to China,” Phil Robertson, the deputy executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, warned.
While Thailand hasn’t joined the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has signed the 1984 Convention Against Torture, which forbids governments from returning people to situations where they may be tortured.
“The Uighurs fleeing China are at risk of torture and disappearance if they are returned,” Sukumarin said.