This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The death of a Uyghur detainee held in a refugee detention center in Thailand has intensified calls from human rights organizations for Thai authorities to provide better living conditions and health services for Uyghur inmates and to allow them to apply for asylum.
Mettohti Metqurban, 40, a Uyghur refugee from China’s Xinjiang region, died in the Bangkok facility last week due to suspected liver failure — the fifth Uyghur to perish in a Thai immigration detention center since 2018, and the second one to die this year. In February, Abdul’eziz Abdulla died reportedly of pneumonia at the same refugee facility after nearly nine years in detention in Thailand.
Rights organizations have demanded that the Thai government resettle the other nearly 50 Uyghur refugees held at the Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok in a refugee-hospitable country while they improve conditions at the detention center.
Chalida Tajaroensuk, director of the People’s Empowerment Foundation in Thailand, a human rights organization, said the living and health conditions of Uyghur refugees in the country’s detention centers should be cause for concern because many fall ill there but are refused medical treatment.
Metqurban died as soon as the hospital discharged him, though the details of his death and illness remain unknown, though authorities are aware of them, she told Radio Free Asia on Tuesday.
“Because local Muslim organizations demanded [that they be allowed] to send physicians to treat the sick and examine their health status, the detention center did not permit them [to do so],” she said.
Conditions ‘scary and inhumane’
The status of Uyghur refugee issue is a delicate issue in Thailand, overseen by the nation’s State Security Committee, Tajaroensuk said.
“They treat the Uyghur issue as a top secret and high-level sensitive issue,” by controlling information on detainees and deciding who can visit them, she said. “Therefore, we cannot know what is happening inside the detention centers.”
RFA contacted the Thai Embassy in Washington, D.C, for information on Metqurban’s death, but did not receive a response.
Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, called on Thai authorities to comply with international law, release detained Uyghur refugees, and create conditions so they can easily apply for political asylum.
“Unfortunately, they are now in crowded detention centers,” she said. “The conditions there are scary and inhumane. Therefore, there must be a way for them to apply for political asylum.”
Thailand, like many other countries in Southeast Asia, has not ratified the U.N.’s refugee convention. Uyghurs, considered a special group, are managed by national security agencies, and are prevented from registering for the refugee status determination process.
Pleaded for medical treatment
Metqurban had been reportedly suffering from severe stomach pains and vomiting over the last few weeks, and his condition worsened with symptoms of jaundice, the World Uyghur Congress, or WUC, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project, or UHRP, said in a statement issued Wednesday.
He was transferred to the hospital on April 21 and is believed to have died there, though Thai authorities have not yet publicly confirmed his death, the organizations said.
Metqurban had pleaded with police at the detention center for medical treatment, but they ignored his request and gave him some sleeping pills and headache alleviation pills instead, said Elijan, a former inmate at the detention facility who now lives in Turkey and had kept in touch with Metqurban.
“How many more deaths will take place before Thai authorities act with humanity to release these innocent people who are merely seeking safe haven?” Omer Kanat, UHRP’s executive director, said in a statement. “Uyghurs around the world are filled with anguish that these refugees have been left in misery for nine years and the world has not lifted a finger to rescue them.”
Metqurban was among the 350 Uyghurs who fled from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 2011, fearing Chinese persecution of the mostly Muslim minority, and were arrested and detained by Thai authorities, according to WUC and UHRP. They were locked up in the refugee detention center, where Metqurban had been held since March 2014.
In 2015, the authorities transferred some 170 Uyghurs, including Metqurban’s wife and three children, to Turkey, while more than 100 other men and women were deported to China, drawing condemnation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the two organizations said.
Human rights groups have issued previous calls for Thai authorities to take action on Uyghur refugees, with more than 50 Uyghur organizations in 2022 calling for an end to the prolonged detention of Uyghurs in Thailand.