The United States has urged Thailand to protect the 218 asylum seekers from China's Uighur minority, with activists fearing that Beijing will pressure the Kingdom to deport them.
“We are urging the Thai government to provide full protection to the victims [and] to ensure that their humanitarian needs are met,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Meanwhile, authorities in Songkhla will take action in the provincial court against the asylum seekers for illegal entry to the country, local immigration chief Police Maj-General Tatchai Pitaneelabut said yesterday.
The group consists of 218 people – as many as 95 of them children, according to the authorities. Of the adults, 69 are men and 54 women. Some of the women are pregnant.
The asylum seekers, who appeared to be preparing to head elsewhere, presented themselves as Turks rather than Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking and mainly Muslim group from China’s northwestern Xinjiang region.
The latest annual US human rights report said that China carried out “severe official repression” of Uighurs in Xinjiang, including over their freedom of speech and religion.
Xinjiang has been hit by periodic bouts of violence, and Chinese officials blamed Uighur separatists for a March 1 mass stabbing at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming that killed 29 people and injured 143 others.
Under pressure from Beijing, countries including Cambodia, Malaysia and Pakistan have all in recent years forcibly returned Uighurs to China.
Thailand has a generally cordial relationship with China.
The UN refugee agency criticised Malaysia for its deportation of six Uighurs to China in December, saying that they were sent back to a country where they were at risk even though the group had registered asylum claims.
Human Rights Watch noted that Thailand is part of the UN Convention against Torture, which forbids countries from sending people to places where they would face abuse.
The New York-based advocacy group said that the Uighurs in Thailand faced “credible threats of torture” if returned to China.
Human Rights Watch asked the Thai government to ensure that the Uighurs are not forcibly returned to China and have urgent access to refugee status determination by the United Nations refugee agency.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia executive director Brad Adams said Thai authorities “need to allow all members of this group access to a fair process to determine their claims based on their merits, not on Beijing’s demands”.