Thailand has detained a second group of people believed to be Uyghurs fleeing violence in China's Xinjiang province as Southeast Asian countries are asked to adopt a more humane policy towards the ethnic minority asylum seekers.
The group of 112 was held in Sa Kaew province near the Thai-Cambodia border last week and has been taken to the central immigration detention center in the Thai capital Bangkok, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement, calling on Bangkok not to deport them home where they could face punishment.
Earlier, on March 13, Thai police detained 213 Uyghurs, including 80 children, hiding in a camp in a rubber plantation in Ratapoom district in southern Songkhla province near the border with Malaysia.
'Need to act quickly'
Diplomats from the Chinese embassy in Bangkok have been allowed by Thai authorities to interview both the groups amid worries that they could be deported back home where they could be jailed.
“Past cases have shown that Uyghurs returned to China are always at risk of persecution,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Thailand needs to act quickly to ensure that these people are protected and not sent into harm’s way.”
Under customary international law and as a party to the U.N. Convention against Torture, Thailand is obliged to ensure that no one in its custody is forcibly sent to a place where they would risk being subjected to persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations, the rights groups said.
Thai Immigration Bureau chief Panu Kerdlarppol told the Bangkok Post newspaper that the authorities believe those held in Songkhla and Sa Kaew province belong to "the same group" and that they were suspected to have been brought into Thailand by a human trafficking ring.
Exodus from Xinjiang
Rights group say there has been a rapid flight of Uyghurs from Xinjiang due to ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression in the troubled region.
Thailand is under pressure to provide the Uyghurs urgent access to refugee status determination proceedings by the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
“It’s really not that complicated: returning Uyghurs to China exposes them to severe abuse,” Adams of Human Rights Watch said. “Thailand will be violating international law by sending any of these people back.”
Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok, had told RFA last week that the agency would interview them and try and find out what their immediate humanitarian needs are, adding that the agency would work with the Thai authorities to make sure that they can stay temporarily while their background and needs are evaluated.
Meanwhile, The Nation daily in Thailand asked Southeast Asian nations not to deport Uyghur asylum seekers in a bid to maintain good ties with Beijing.
Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia are among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which have deported Uyghur migrants fleeing what they call persecution at home. Some of them have been sentenced to life imprisonment on reaching China.
ASEAN states "have always dealt with these migrants harshly, deporting them to face prosecution in China," The Nation said in an editorial last week. "Beijing is no doubt pleased by this policy, but it damages ASEAN's reputation."
The Nation said that the ASEAN states had forcibly deported the Uyghurs to China in the past in an apparent bid to maintain good political and economic ties with Beijing.
It warned however that "the desire to maintain good foreign relations should not override the need to protect basic human rights."