Almost one year since Cambodia forcibly repatriated 20 ethnic Uighurs to China, prompting international condemnation, the World Uighur Congress on Wednesday said it was gravely concerned about the whereabouts and welfare of the asylum-seekers.
“The Chinese government has disappeared these Uighurs, despite having promised the international community that it would deal with the Uighurs transparently upon return,” reads a statement on the organization’s website.
The 20 asylum-seekers, including a pregnant woman and two children under three, were deported to China on Dec 19, 2009, in connection with July 2009 clashes between Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese in the northwest Xinjiang region that left almost 200 dead.
Human rights observers worldwide condemned the deportation, which went ahead before the Uighurs’ claims for asylum could be processed. Cambodia is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, which prohibits the repatriation of asylum seekers who could face persecution.
Foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong yesterday said he had “no idea” where the asylum-seekers were, and that the government had “never” inquired after them following the deportation. He defended the deportation on the grounds that the Uighurs were not refugees, but undocumented illegal immigrants.
“We consider them illegal immigrants, and we have to sent them back home according to the immigration law,” he said.
Kitty McKinsey, spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said this was not a valid argument.
“Many countries…that have not signed the 1951 refugee convention use immigration laws instead of the convention, but Cambodia had signed it, and did have an obligation to protect asylum-seekers and refugees,” she said.
“That the asylum-seeker process was never allowed to run its course before the refoulement, the forcible repatriation, was a grave violation of international law.”
Ms McKinsey and Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, both said yesterday they had asked the Chinese authorities about the repatriated Uighurs and received no information.
“China persecutes Uighurs who criticize the Chinese government,” Mr Adams said. “There is the strong possibility that they have been given long prison sentences and may even have been executed.”
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy did not reply to an e-mail requesting comment.