The United Nations and rights organisations are set to take care of a group of 220 people smuggled to Songkhla on Wednesday, who have been found to be Uighurs who fled Xinjiang, the mainly Muslim region in western China, Human Rights Watch adviser Sunai P
The group were on their way to Turkey through Malaysia, he said. Efforts were under way to try to verify reports that their passports were seized by smugglers based in Malaysia.
Police and Thai officials were initially unsure what the nationality of the group was. They were first thought to be Turks, or Kurds or Arabs.
The Chinese Embassy has coordinated with Immigration Police on obtaining information from the group, which consists of 78 men, 60 women and 82 children.
Sunai said he was concerned about the Uighurs’ welfare if or when they were repatriated to Xinjiang, given the insurgency by some of its residents against China’s rule.
Deputy Prime Minister Phongthep Thepkanjana spoke after meeting the group at an immigration office where they had been detained. He said the group was not cooperating, and had demanded to meet with officials from the Turkish Embassy.
Human Rights Watch Thailand has contacted the United Nations and its human-rights agency to discuss possible measures to help them out, Sunai said, adding that they would not be repatriated if protected by the UN as asylum seekers.
Immigration Police chief Pol Lt-General Panu Kerdlarppol said verification of the Uighurs’ destination and port of entry was under way, and that the 220 would be returned to where they came from.
He said the Uighurs, who possess a large amount of money in US dollars, had been resting in Songkhla awaiting forged passports to be made available to them by smugglers from various countries. The Uighurs were likely to have travelled to Thailand via car in smaller groups before they gathered in Songkhla. They were later found by Thai people and arrested.
Smugglers demand money
An Immigration Police source said this group of Uighurs had been kept longer in Songkhla by smugglers who demanded another US$10,000 to $20,000 (Bt323,000-Bt646,000) from each of them, while smugglers usually only keep them briefly in Thailand. He said a group of smugglers dealing with Uighurs were a multinational criminal ring based in Malaysia. They charge around $40,000 for each Uighur wishing to travel to Turkey, a Muslim country.
Along the smuggling routes in Thailand, smugglers transport them in vans or pickup trucks to residences near a shopping mall in northern Bangkok and Pathum Thani, before heading to Songkhla in the far South.
Smugglers have links with local politicians based in areas connected to smuggling routes.
In Malaysia, The Star daily newspaper reported that a bid by 62 illegal immigrants from Turkey to enter Malaysia from Thailand had been foiled by the General Operations Force (GOF).
Deputy Superintendent S Sivam, Bidor 3rd GOF Battalion assistant commanding officer, said the illegal immigrants’ movements were detected by GOF personnel at about 5.30am on Thursday.
The 62 were detained while trying to cross through the Malaysia-Thailand border fence.
“GOF personnel, who became suspicious [of] human movement early in the morning, surrounded the illegal immigrants,” he said.
He said all the Turkish nationals, comprising 23 men aged from 19 to 23, 15 women aged from 25 and 40, 15 boys aged from nine months to 11 years, plus nine girls aged from five months to eight years, were believed to have come from Ankara, the Turkish capital.