Last week, East by Southeast, in a piece hypothesizing the motives of the Kunming train station attackers, made the connection between Uighur asylum seekers, Yunnan and Southeast Asia. In the analysis, ExSE posited that Thailand was a likely destination for Uighur refugees as they made their way from Xinjiang, through Yunnan and into Myanmar or Laos. This past week, two separate incidents in near the border of Thailand and Malaysia occurred that appear to confirm this hypothesis.
News was released on Thursday that Thai authorities had rescued 200 people from a human smuggling camp in the south of Thailand. During a raid on Wednesday, police discovered 200 people imprisoned in a camp suspected to be used for human trafficking.
The group, which includes 78 men, 60 women and 82 children, at first claimed to be Turkish, despite having no documents to confirm that. However, they have now been identified as ethnic Uighurs from China by a US-based organization.
With their identities confirmed, Thailand has faced calls to not to deport the refugees, with the US State Department also weighing in.
“We are concerned about Uighurs generally (and) welcome reports that these Uighurs were rescued,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Friday. “We’re encouraging Thailand to make sure their humanitarian needs are met.”
US-based Human Rights watch also urged the Thai government not to deport the refugees. “Thai authorities should realize that Uighurs forced back to China disappear into a black hole,” Brad Adams, the organization’s Asia director said in a statement. “They 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.”
Despite these calls, dozens of the refugees were sentenced for illegal entry by a Thai court on Saturday, with each person assessed a fine of 4,000 baht ($124). For now, the men will be taken to an immigration detention center and the women and children will be taken to a shelter, according to Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot.
In a possibly related story, 62 people were arrested just across the border in Malaysia last week. Like the group caught in Thailand, the Malaysian also claimed to be Turkish refugees. The group of alleged Turks were found near the border fence during routine patrols early Thursday morning Deputy Superintendent Sivam of Malaysia’s General Operations Force said in a statement.
Despite their claims of Turkish nationality, those arrested were not carrying valid travel documents or identification papers and historically, there has been a small, if nonexistent presence of illegal Turkish immigrants in the region. In light of this and the arrests in Thailand, some in the media believe that the alleged Turks might in fact be Uighurs from China. If so, this would mark the largest number found in Southeast Asia to date.
If both groups arrested are indeed Uighur refugees, their escape to Southeast Asia wouldn’t be without precedent. Since Cambodia deported 20 Uighurs back to China in 2009, there have been a string of similar deportations in the region. In 2010, Lao PDR deported a group of seven Uighur refugees back to their native Xinjiang in northwest China and in 2011 and 2012, Malaysia deported separate groups of refugees to China. Each deportation case has been heavily criticized by rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Human rights groups fear that once repatriated, Uighurs face a grim future of long prison sentences and possible torture. Refugees deported back to China from places like Pakistan and Cambodia have all faced life prison terms upon their return.
The threat of prison is likely a reason why those arrested in Thailand and Malaysia have claimed to be Turks when discovered. Instead of admitting to Chinese nationality and facing the possibility of deportation back to China and likely prison time, the refugees opted for claiming another nationality. Seeing that the Uighur population is nearly all Muslim and speaks a Turkic language, claiming Turkish citizenship was a natural choice.
However, as is the case with both groups of refugees, these people’s true identities have yet to be discovered. If they aren’t Turks, are they really Uighurs? If they are Uighurs, how did they get to the Thai-Malaysian border and why did they come this far? Was Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country with labor shortages, the final destination? If both groups are indeed Uighur, this would mark a new level of southward migration for Uighur refugees. Might this also tie them to Kunming train station attackers, as East by Southeast hypothesized? For now, these are only questions, but ExSE will be searching for answers.