Recent arrests by Thai authorities of groups of suspected Uighur refugees along the Cambodian border have experts convinced that Cambodia has once again become a transit hub for members of the minority group fleeing religious and political persecution in China.
Last week, 14 Uighurs were reportedly discovered in Sa Kaeo province hiding in a forest close to the border with Banteay Meanchey province, allegedly carrying almost $50,000 in cash after being abandoned by Cambodian smugglers, while 15 others were discovered in the same area a month earlier.
In the past two months, several other groups of Uighurs from the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, home to the majority of the Turkic ethnic group, have been detained in Thailand, including one group of about 220 people, after fleeing ethnic violence and suppression by Chinese authorities.
“Three groups of more than 400 Uighurs were detained in March and a further 218 Chinese asylum seekers, presumably Uighurs, were detained in Songkhla province in April,” said Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert and emeritus professor at the Australia Defense Force Academy.
“The recent arrests…confirm that a trans-Cambodia smuggling network exists,” he said, adding the simultaneous arrest of two groups of Uighurs in northern Vietnam last week, plus reports that previous groups of Uighurs had been allowed to pass through Vietnam unhindered, is further evidence of a smuggling network in the region.
Cambodia swiftly dropped off the radar for asylum seekers after government in December 2009 forcibly deported a group of 20 Uighurs, including women and children, back to China, effectively condemning them to life in prison, or worse. The decision flouted the 1951 U.N. convention on refugees and was blasted by the international community. Cambodia was awarded days later with $1 billion in grants and loans from China.
But the route through Cambodia has now reopened, according to Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“Uighurs stayed well away from Cambodia for a period of time, but now they have come back and it is unclear why. [They] need to tiptoe across Cambodia because they are at risk of immediate arrest and possible forced return to China if the authorities find them,” Mr. Robertson said. The routes and tactics being used by the smugglers who are facilitating the movement of Uighurs remain unclear, he added.
The Cambodian government’s stance on Uighurs, however, is perfectly clear. Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said regardless of their nationality, people discovered illegally entering Cambodia are subject to Cambodian law.
“We will send them back. Whoever they are, from wherever they come, whoever is involved with illegal people smuggling are blackmailing Cambodia,” he said.
Not every Cambodian official seems to be getting the memo, however. According to HRW, at least 150 Uighurs are known to have come across the border to Thailand from Cambodia. And despite official denials, the 15 detained in Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province in late March were previously in police custody in Banteay Meanchey province, Mr. Robertson said.
“At least 15 of those Uighurs were in Cambodian detention at the border briefly before being pushed across the border into the hands of the Thais,” he said.
“Some of these groups have been found in Thailand with significant amounts of cash on their person…. What’s clear is those with money can get many Cambodian official faces to turn the other way and that is what we suspect may be happening in some instances,” Mr. Robertson said.
Sao Bunrith, chief of immigration police in Banteay Meanchey province’s Poipet City, could not be reached for comment. Poipet police chief Oum Sophal said he had not detained or even seen Uighurs in the area, and had not been given specific orders to be on the lookout for them.
“I have received no information about Uighurs,” he said, echoing several other border police officials contacted in Banteay Meanchey and Pailin provinces.
The most recent group of 14 Uighurs appeared in a Thai court on Monday to hear charges against them for illegal entry into Thailand, according to Mr. Robertson. The crime usually results in a fine of about 2000 baht, or about $60—or time in prison if they can’t pay.
Despite Cambodia’s poor record protecting refugees, it is the only mainland Southeast Asian country to have signed the U.N. Convention on Refugees, a commitment that HRW said must be fulfilled. Although the U.N. refugee agency downsized in the country in January 2013—it went from having 10 staff members to two—it remains involved in dealing with refugees here, said Vivian Tan, regional spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“UNHCR retains a small presence in Cambodia to support and help build the capacity of government counterparts to meet their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention,” she said.
Whatever the reason for the renewed passage of Uighurs through the country, the international priority should be to ensure that they don’t meet the same fate as the 20 that crossed into Cambodia five years ago, said Mr. Robertson.
“If the flow of Uighurs continues across Cambodia, the international community will need to find a way to pressure Phnom Penh to ensure that under no circumstances should it send these people back to Beijing. That’s the bottom line, we don’t want to see any repeats of December 2009.”
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)