WASHINGTON – The United States on Friday urged Thailand to protect about 200 asylum seekers who belong to China’s Uighur minority, and activists fear Beijing will pressure the kingdom to deport them.
Thai police said Thursday that they had discovered the families during a raid in the far south of the country.
The asylum seekers, who appeared to be preparing to head elsewhere, presented themselves as Turkish rather than Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim group from China’s northwestern Xinjiang region whose language is in the same family as Turkish.
Radio Free Asia’s Uighur service quoted relatives as saying the asylum seekers pretended to be Turkish for fear that they would be deported to China if the Thai authorities knew they held Chinese citizenship.
“We are urging the Thai government to provide full protection to the victims (and) to ensure that their humanitarian needs are met,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
The latest annual U.S. human rights report said China carries out “severe official repression” of Uighurs in Xinjiang, including over their freedom of speech and religion.
Xinjiang is periodically hit by violent clashes, and Chinese officials blamed Uighur separatists for a March 1 mass stabbing at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming that killed 29 people and injured 143 others.
Under pressure from Beijing, countries including Cambodia, Malaysia and Pakistan have all in recent years forcibly returned Uighurs to China. Thailand has a generally cordial relationship with China.
The U.N. refugee agency criticized Malaysia for its deportation of six Uighurs to China in December, saying they were sent back to a country where they were at risk even though they had registered asylum claims.
Human Rights Watch noted that Thailand is part of the U.N. Convention against Torture, which forbids countries from sending people to places where they will face abuse. The New York-based advocacy group said the Uighurs in Thailand face “credible threats of torture” if returned to China.