Reuters and South China Morning Post are reporting that 200 people rescued from a human trafficking camp in Thailand are suspected to be Uyghur refugees. The group, which included around 100 children, was freed during a Thai police raid of a rubber plantation in southern Thailand, an area where human smuggling rings have been known to operate.
According to reports, the rescued people said that they were Turkish, but had no documentation to support this claim and none of the group seemed to be fluent in Arabic. Instead, Thai police sources say the group “show strong similarities” to Uyghur refugees that have been detained in Bangkok. Kayum Masimov, the president of the Uyghur Canadian Society, told Reuters that he had spoken by phone with the group’s leader, and that the man understood the Uyghur language. Both Turkish and Chinese officials have been called in to interview the group in an attempt to determine their backgrounds.
China’s government has so far refused to confirm or deny the rumors regarding the group of 200 people. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei scolded reporters for asking about the case. “At the current stage when the situation and identities of those people are still under investigation and verification, all speculations and comments lack factual basis,” Hong said.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Uyghur activists and human rights groups predict that the people, if they are in fact Uyghurs, will not cooperate with investigators out of a fear that they will be deported back to China. Masimov said the people “will simply refuse to talk. They fear for their safety.” Human Rights Watch spokesman Phil Robertson told South China Morning Post that when Uyghurs seeks asylum overseas, “Beijing often pursues them relentlessly.” He cited cases in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand, where Uyghur refugees have been returned to Beijing—and often faced prison sentences once back in China.
Human Rights Watch has thus urged the Thai government not to deport the group back to China, should it turn out they are in fact Uyghurs. Brad Adams, the Asia director at HRW, told Radio Free Asia that “Uyghurs forced back to China disappear into a black hole.” HRW also claims that, should the refugees be returned, they “face credible threats of torture.”
It’s a difficult time to be a Uyghur in China. Beijing has vowed to crack down on terrorism and separatism in the wake of a deadly knife attack at the Kunming Railway Station. Chinese authorities announced that Xinjiang separatists (almost certainly ethnic Uyghurs) were behind the attack. As a result, some activists fear that the Uyghur ethnic group, both within Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, will face harsh restrictions on personal freedoms, from online communications to religious observances. The president of the Uyghur American Association, Alim Seytoff, tied the Chinese crack down on separatism to an increase in Uyghur migrants. Seytoff said in a statement that “an unprecedented flight of Uyghurs from China is underway,” the result of “the intense Chinese government repression targeting Uyghurs.”
Reuters reports that, even before the rescue of this group of 200, there were already 100 Uyghurs at an immigration detention center in Bangkok. Thailand is a hot spot for human trafficking, and migrants and refugees are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims. The U.S. State Department listed Thailand as a Tier Two Watch List country in its Trafficking in Persons Report 2013, meaning Thailand is taking steps to fights human trafficking but the number of victims remains high and there has not been substantial progress made in the past year. The report noted, “The majority of the trafficking victims identified within Thailand are migrants from Thailand’s neighboring countries who are forced, coerced, or defrauded into labor or commercial sexual exploitation.” Accordingly, Uyghurs fleeing to Thailand would be at high risk of being victimized by human trafficking rings.