We previously reported the case of police coming across a secret jungle camp in Songkhla where more than 200 Uyghur people had been living, and 120 of them were later fined by Thai police despite pressure from human rights groups to help the group of instead of punish them. More were later discovered, bringing the total number of suspected Uyghur refugees brought into Thailand in March alone to over 400.
Police still have outstanding arrest warrants for two men that might be involved in bringing the first 218 refugees into Thailand – Songkhla-natives Sulaiman Madadam (58) and Yagop Heenhame (46). Investigations have been hampered by the refugees’ refusal to cooperate with authorities, most likely because they fear for their safety if any useful information is obtained by the wrong people.
Although it has taken months to identify just a handful of the group, China’s immigration officials have revealed that almost half of the first 218 refugees are in fact Chinese Uyghurs, and that they should be sent back to China. The officials even stated that they knew many of the parents’ home addresses in the Xinjiang region of China. Human rights groups are still adamant that if Thailand succumbs to China pressuring them to deport the refugees, they will be sending them into abuse and possible torture.
The message that the group keeps repeating is that they wish to travel to Turkey. China, Turkey and now the United States have been involved in diplomatic discussions regarding the groups, many of whom are now waiting for their fate in detention centres in Bangkok and Songkhla. Negotiations have been under way for the groups to possibly expatriate to predominantly-Muslim Turkey, where they can learn Turkish and settle into their lives without fear of persecution from China. Many Uyghurs have already resettled in Turkey, despite China repeatedly intervening in past cases in order to try and repatriate Uyghur people who flee the country.
Deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, Phil Robertson, says they are worried that Chinese authorities have already been attempting to paint the detained refugees in a negative light, by branding them as terrorists to Thai authorities and suggesting they somehow intend ill will to the country, despite the groups being made up of mainly woman and children. “The concern is that China is trying to demonize them to try to pressure Thailand to send them back.” He said.
The Uyghur American Association, based in Washington, DC, echo the same sentiments. Director Alim Seytoff said that labelling the groups of mostly woman and children as terrorists was irresponsible and that Thailand had a legal and moral obligation to protect them from China. He stated, “The Uyghurs in Thailand are clearly refugees.”
The UN Refugee Agency has so far provided blankets and personal hygiene items to the refugees, while Vivian Tan, a Bangkok-based spokesperson, has said, “We’re urging the Thai government to allow these people to stay while their claims are assessed by the Turkish authorities and we insist they should eventually be allowed to go wherever they want to go.”