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Uyghur migrants see no release after a decade in Bangkok cells

Jail cells (Dreamstime/TNS)
April 01, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

After fleeing China’s persecution and entering Thailand 10 years ago, more than 40 Uyghurs remain incarcerated in overcrowded detention centers for illegal entry without knowing their fate, their families and rights groups said at a weekend seminar.

They are among more than 500 Uyghurs who fled China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to Southeast Asian countries, according to Thai officials and NGOs. They hoped to be resettled in Turkey via Malaysia but only about 100 made their way through the red tape and intransigence of officials.

During the exodus from late 2013 to 2014, Thai immigration authorities arrested at least 475 Uyghurs – mostly on rubber plantations in Songkhla province – and detained them in March 2014, according to official figures. 

And the remaining Uyghurs have been held as illegal immigrants – not refugees – under “poor living conditions” in detention centers, unable to speak with outsiders, said an advisor to the country’s National Human Rights Commission, Rattikul Chansuriya, who contended that the Uyghurs could be in danger if repatriated to China. 

“The concerned authorities should urgently find appropriate third countries or other destinations for Uyghur detainees,” she told the seminar in Bangkok on Saturday.

She made the same recommendation to Thailand’s civilian-led Srettha Thavisin government. 

“The concerned authorities should expedite the implementation of the regulations for the screening of aliens who cannot be returned to their country of origin due to potential danger,” she said. “This is an important mechanism to provide protection to asylum seekers, including Uyghurs.” 

Thailand’s foreign ministry had not responded to a request for comment on the Uyghurs by the time of publication.

Civilian government provides little hope

The life of Uyghurs under the then-government of Prayuth Chan-o-cha, a former army general who led the May 2014 coup, was harsh.

A month after the forced repatriation of 109 Uyghur men in July 2015, a bomb blast killed 20 people and injured more than 100 others at Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine, frequented by Chinese tourists. Thai officials believed the attack was in retaliation for China blocking the transfer of Uyghur refugees to Turkey after Ankara accepted more than 170 Uyghur women and children.  

At that time, the Turkish embassy in Bangkok said it was willing to accept all the Uyghurs, but China protested. Beijing has continued to closely monitor the status of the detainees, prompting Bangkok to prevaricate. 

One Thai NGO said in spite of international pressure on Thailand it continues to be hard to persuade the government to release the Uyghurs.

“The Uyghurs are a small group of people, [who] mean nothing. China keeps submitting letters to follow up on Uyghurs with the Thai foreign ministry every day,” said Chalida Tajaroensuk, director of the People’s Empowerment Foundation, a Thai NGO that assists Uyghur refugees in Thailand. 

She said it was hard for NGOs and even for Thai officials to have access to the detainees, especially the two bomb suspects, because the government called the matter a “top secret security issue.”

At least five Uyghurs died in detention, according to the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress.

The National Human Rights Commission advisor, Rattikul, said that Thailand’s Human Rights Commissioner would persist in advocating for various recommendations. 

These include establishing a definitive timeline for third-country asylum, ensuring access to psychotherapy, enabling communication with outsiders, providing prompt notification in case of death, and improving detention facilities.

Additionally, the Commissioner is pushing for the authorities to identify a third country for asylum seekers and the implementation of a “no repatriation” policy when there is a potential danger. However, these recommendations have so far received no response from the Srettha administration.

“I thought this government would have a more liberal policy, or a balanced policy on this matter or human rights issues in general but it’s disappointing. I still didn’t hear anything about them upholding human rights issues in Thailand,” she said.

Following nine years of a military-backed government, the ruling coalition’s leading party Pheu Thai may not do much to improve the administration’s human rights focus. 

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, whom the media dub a “salesman” for his economic focus, is seen by many political pundits as disregarding human rights.

But Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said Srettha needs to stop buckling under Beijing’s pressure.

“Thailand should say to China: ‘Look, according to our law and international standards, we can’t send them to you.’” 

Waiting for his father 

Speaking in an animated video at Saturday’s seminar, a Turkey-based man whose father remains in a Bangkok cell said no one wanted to become a refugee but did it out of necessity. He said his family was longing to be reunited.   

The man said his parents and siblings were detained in Thailand on March 14, 2014, before all-but-his-father were released for settlement in Turkey. 

“The most important man in our lives is missing … We know where he is, but we cannot hug him,” said the man, who wished to remain anonymous to protect his family.

“His absence is the most visible wound in our soul.”