The United States on Friday urged Thailand to protect about 200 asylum seekers from China's Uighur minority, with activists fearing that Beijing will pressure the kingdom to deport them.
Thai police said Thursday that they discovered the families in a raid in the kingdom's deep south. The asylum seekers, who appeared to be preparing to head elsewhere, presented themselves as Turkish rather than Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim group from China's northwestern Xinjiang region.
"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 told reporters.
The latest annual US human rights report said that China carries out "severe official repression" of Uighurs in Xinjiang, including over their freedom of speech and religion.
Xinjiang is periodically hit by violent clashes 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 criticized 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.
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," said Human Rights Watch's Asia executive director Brad Adams.
The Uighur American Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, voiced concern over the group, which it described as Uighurs, and urged Thailand to cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
"This group of Uighurs should not be a test of Thailand's relationship with China, but a test of Thailand's ability to follow international refugee standards," said association president Alim Seytoff.
Radio Free Asia's Uighur service quoted relatives as saying that the asylum seekers pretended to be Turkish for fear that they would be deported to China if the Thai authorities knew they held Chinese citizenship.
Thailand has long been a hub for people trafficking, with thousands of Rohingya boat people from neighboring Myanmar believed to have passed through the kingdom in recent years.
US officials "encourage Thailand to conduct thorough investigations for signs of trafficking, including in cases with alleged government complicity, and to bring trafficking offenders to justice," Harf said.