Four years after the forcible deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers from Cambodia to China, an advocacy group has said it remains “deeply concerned” about their fate and has called on China to lift a veil of secrecy surrounding their treatment.
In a statement, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), which is based in Munich, said on Friday that 17 members of the Turkic ethnic group, who had already applied for asylum in Cambodia, “are confirmed to still be in detention [in China], some of whom have been sentenced to between 16 years and life in prison.”
“The WUC calls on the Chinese government to disclose information about all those detained in this case,” the organization said, adding that the U.N., European Union and U.S. should also “involve themselves” in the matter.
The group of Uighurs, which included a pregnant woman and two children, had come to Cambodia in the wake of violence that erupted between Han Chinese and ethnic Uighurs in Urumqi in China’s northwest in July 2009. But while their applications for asylum were being processed by the U.N. Refugee Agency, they were removed at gunpoint from the house in which they had been staying in Phnom Penh and put on a night-time flight to China on December 19, 2009.
In forcibly deporting the Uighurs, Cambodia flouted the 1951 U.N. convention on refugees as well as a separate U.N. protocol on the deportation of refugees.
“Upon their forcible return, they were all promptly detained and ushered away from public view,” WUC said in the statement, adding two of the men were imprisoned for life, while the fate of the pregnant women and children remains unknown.
A day after the deportation of the asylum seekers, Xi Jinping, who is now the Chinese president, pledged $1 billion worth of investment to Cambodia.
“The international community must step up their efforts to ensure that international refugee human rights law is being realized by the very people for whom those laws are firmly in place,” WUC president and Uighur human rights activist Rebiya Kadeer said.
Sister Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, said she had observed a significant drop in the number of people seeking asylum in Cambodia since 2009.
“The number of asylum seekers coming in has decreased dramatically…since the deportation of the Uighurs,” she said.
Cambodia took over refugee status determination from the U.N. in 2009. In 2011, it shuttered the U.N. Refugee Agency’s center in Phnom Penh and 75 Montagnard asylum seekers were resettled abroad or deported to Vietnam, where they claim they are persecuted for their Christian beliefs and demands for indigenous land rights.
Officials at the government’s refugee office could not be reached for comment Friday, but Sister Coghlan said that at the start of 2013, about 88 people were seeking asylum in Cambodia.