Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Uighurs have fled China in recent years.
In Thailand the fate of some 400 Uighurs had been shrouded in uncertainty since March 2014, when they were detained for illegal entry while authorities verified their nationalities amid a tussle between Turkey and China over where they should be moved.
“This is a diplomatic feat Beijing will use to send a signal to the Uighurs”, said Dilxadi Rexiti, a Sweden-based spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress. “What they are after is a life with dignity”.
Thailand on Friday closed its embassy and consulate in Turkey after a protest against the kingdom’s deportation of Uighur Muslims to China, as the U.S. warned the minority could face “harsh treatment” on their return.
But he said that they have found propaganda videos and messages on the mobile phones and computers of some of those who have been returned, including pictures of dead fighters and promises of the joys to come in the afterlife.
“If we send them back and there is a problem, it is not our fault”, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Thursday, according to news agencies.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying hit back at Beijing’s critics at a daily news briefing on Friday.
Citing accounts by returnees, the ministry said that after arriving in Turkey, “many” recruits, led by the ETIM, went on to fight in Syria.
But overseas experts doubt the strength of the groups and their links to global terrorism, with some saying China exaggerates the threat to justify tough security measures in the resource-rich region. The article clearly was referring to Turkey, although it did not name the country specifically.
China is home to about 20 million Muslims spread across its vast territory, only a portion of whom are Uighurs.
“Thailand should make it clear it won’t further violate worldwide law by immediately announcing a moratorium on additional deportations of Turkic people to China”, said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch. “You do not send people back to a place where they have well-founded fear of persecution”, she said.
China’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority has strained ties with Turkey ahead of a visit to Beijing this month by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Many Turks see themselves as sharing a common cultural and religious heritage with their Uighur “brothers” and Turkey is home to a large Uighur diaspora.
The temporary closure of Thailand’s embassy in Ankara and consulate in Istanbul comes after anti-Chinese demonstrators stormed the latter, damaging furnishings and pulling down the sign outside.
“We strongly urge the Thai authorities to ensure the protection of the 60 individuals who remain in detention and ensure that no further deportation of individuals, including potential refugees and asylum seekers, are made to countries where there are substantial grounds to believe that they would face an imminent risk of grave human rights violations, including torture”, Colville said. The United Nations refugee agency said it was “shocked” after having been assured by Thailand the group would be protected, the Associated Press reported. “How can they tell the difference?” “Don’t allow them to send us back to China”.