Thailand said on Thursday it had forcibly repatriated nearly 100 Uyghurs to China, a move that drew criticism from human rights groups and protests in Turkey over the expulsion of the Turkic-speaking Muslim minority that suffers harsh repression under Chinese rule.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s prime minster, told reporters his country was “not part of the dispute” between China and Uyghurs and had received guarantees from Beijing that the Uyghurs forced onto planes late on Wednesday would be treated fairly.
“They will be provided with justice and safety. China confirmed they will be given access to fair justice,” Prayuth told reporters at the government house in Bangkok.
“If they are not implicated in any offenses, they will be released and given land for making a living. But if any are implicated with crimes, they will be tried,” he said.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said it was shocked at the deportation of a group believed to include women and children who did not wish to return to China.
“While we are seeking further clarifications on what happened exactly, we are shocked by this deportation of some 100 people and consider it a flagrant violation of international law,” said Volker Türk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, in a statement issued by the U.N. agency.
“I strongly urge the Thai authorities to investigate this matter and appeal to Thailand to honor its fundamental international obligations, notably the principle of non-refoulement, and to refrain from such deportations in the future,” he added.
On Wednesday, the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) warned of the impending repatriation and appealed for international intervention.
The WUC said it was “gravely concerned” about the fate of the Uyghurs, noting that the consequences of their repatriation were likely to include criminal allegations used to justify punishments that would be inflicted on them upon their arrival in China.
“It is anticipated that the Chinese government is behind this covert, and indeed heinous, operation which aims to bring these Uyghurs back to harsh punishment, which possibly includes capital punishment,” the WUC said.
The forced deportation came despite the resettlement in Turkey last week of 173 women and children from among the detainees in Thailand, following long-lasting negotiations between the two countries.
Maj. Gen. Weerachon Sukhontapatipak, deputy spokesperson for the Thai government, said in Bangkok the repatriation was ‘in line with a citizen verification procedure, which indicated them as Chinese and they must follow China’s justice.”
The earlier release of Uyghurs to Turkey was a different matter, he told reporters at a news conference.
“In regards with the 170 Uyghurs Thailand sent over to Turkey late June, this is an indication for Thailand’s compliance with international-standard citizenship verification process. They are verified being Turkish, so they were sent to Turkey,” said Sukhontapatipak.
“We admitted it is a very sensitive security issue. However, Thailand has continual discussions with both China and Turkey,” he added.
“There are about 50 Uyghur who are pending citizenship verification completion,” said Sukhontapatipak.
Leaving China in droves
In Turkey, local protesters responded to the expulsion by smashing windows and ransacking parts of the honorary Thai consulate in Istanbul.
“Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has had a direct phone conversation with the Turkish prime minister and asked him to maintain security for the Thai diplomats and Thai citizens in Turkey. He has great concerns on the issue.” Sukhontapatipak said.
The detainees had remained in limbo more than a year into their detention, with Beijing demanding they be repatriated to China.
During the last couple of years, Uyghurs have been leaving China in droves to escape persecution and repression by authorities who consider them separatists and terrorists and have cracked down on their religion and culture.
Chinese authorities have blamed an upsurge of violence in Xinjiang since 2012 on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
Several Asian nations—including Thailand—have bowed to demands by Beijing to repatriate Uyghurs fleeing persecution in Xinjiang, despite warnings from rights groups and the Uyghur exile community that they may face prison sentences upon their return.