Few Answers One Year After Uighur Deportations

Cases of Uighurs, Montagnards, spotlight treatment of asylum-seekers

One year ago, 20 ethnic Uighur asylum-seekers in Phnom Penh under the protection of the UN refugee ag­ency were removed from their safe house at gunpoint, load­ed onto a charter flight under cover of night and repatriated to China, a country that considered them criminals eligible for execution.

The day before the Dec 19, 2009, de­portation, Cambodia passed a long-awaited sub-decree that trans­ferred control of refugee status assessments to the government and away from UNHCR.

The day after the deportation, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrived in Phnom Penh bearing $1.2 billion in interest-free loans.

To this day, nobody knows what has happened to the Uighurs.

Human Rights Watch on Friday called on the Chinese government to account for the whereabouts of the deportees, who included a pregnant woman and two babies, saying they had simply “disappeared” and were facing a “clear risk of torture.”

“China’s record of torture, disappearance and arbitrary detention of Uighurs, as well as the politicized nature of judicial proceedings in past cases of forced repatriation, raise serious concerns that these individuals remain at risk of torture and ill-treatment,” HRW said.

“Both China and Cambodia should be held accountable for their flagrant disregard of their ob­ligations under international law,” said Sophie Richardson, the group’s Asia advocacy director.

But in the year that has passed since the deportation, there is no indication that Cambodia–once trumpeted by UNHCR as “a refugee model for Southeast Asia”–has become a friendlier place for asylum-seekers, or is fulfilling its obligations under the 1951 refugee convention.

The government announced last week that it would shutter a safe house for Vietnamese Montagnard refugees fleeing ethnic and religious persecution in Vietnam, and that all Montagnard asylum-seekers who had not yet obtained official refugee status would be deported.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said on Wednesday that newly arrived Montagnards would be dealt with under the immigration law, not the refugee law, because Vietnam was “a peaceful country” where “there is no rebellion.”

In 2008, UNHCR lavished praise on Cambodia’s then-pending sub-decree on refugees, which was to give responsibility for interviewing asylum-seekers and granting refugee status to the government.

The law was the most obvious fruit of Cambodia’s 1992 accession to the 1951 convention on refugees. One of the principles enshrined by the convention, which the Cambodian sub-decree echoes, is that of nonrefoulement: not sending back refugees to possible persecution.

But according to some rights workers, the law–which was drafted and passed without input from civil society groups–was inadequate from the start.

“The refugee sub-decree flagrantly violates the 1951 UN Refugee Convention signed by Cambodia by authorizing the arbitrary lifting of refugee protection and forced expulsion of people to countries where they are at risk of persecution and torture,” said Sara Colm, senior researcher for HRW, in an e-mail.

Ms Colm pointed in particular to the law’s fifth article, which allows the Interior Minister to bestow or remove refugee status at will, paving the way for forcible returns.

“The sub-decree was immediately put into use the day after it was signed,” she added. “On December 18, 2009, the sub-decree was used to provide the ‘legal’ basis for authorities to confiscate the Uighurs’ “Persons of Concern” letters while they were in police detention–thereby terminating UNHCR’s protection mandate for the group. This enabled the Interior Ministry to then issue the order to deport the Uighurs for violating the immigration law.”

In a column in Australian magazine Eureka Street published in March, human rights advocate Father Frank Brennan lambasted the law, calling it a “sham.” He also singled out the sub-decree’s fifth article as having directly paved the way for the Uighur deportations, and questioning whether Cambodia was capable of making refugee-processing decisions under political pressure.

Father Brennan claimed a Cambodian refugee official made one Uighur nervous by telling him that “China was a good place that respected its people.”

Sister Denise Coughlin of Jesuit Refugee Services, which worked closely with the Uighurs while they were in Phnom Penh, said the December 2009 passage of the sub-decree after “such a long, long time” was “clearly linked” to the deportation of the Uighurs. Still, she was more optimistic about the Cambodian government’s ability to make its own refugee status assessments in the future.

“It’s not impossible for them to make decisions, but sometimes political pressure is exerted, as it was in the case of the Uighurs,” she said. “I do think it would be much better if [the sub-decree] allowed asylum-seekers to have legal counsel that is independent from UNHCR and the government.”

Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak declined yesterday to answer questions about how Cambodia now makes refugee status assessments, but he did imply that UNHCR was still involved in the process.

“We were working together with UNHCR, and if they did not provide them [with refugee status] we will apply the law of Cambodia…. We consider them people who have entered Cambodia illegally and we will send them back at the same point they entered.”

Lt Gen Sopheak would not specify whether the government was applying the refugee sub-decree or normal immigration law in the case of the Montagnards set to be deported.

“We will apply Cambodian law,” he said. “As you are working in Cambodia, you can read Cambodian law.”

He went on to defend Cambodia’s treatment of asylum-seekers, saying that the government always adhered to the 1951 convention.

But SRP lawmaker Son Chhay questioned this, saying he had seen “no sign displayed that our government is doing anything in terms of the refugee convention.” Mr Chhay criticized the very idea of giving decision-making powers on refugees to the Cambodian government.

“Cambodia is very bad in trying to control this process, and the UNHCR is also very bad in accepting this kind of compromise, because when it comes to refugees there is no position of compromise: You either save their lives or let them die,” he said.

A UNHCR spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment this weekend, but the agency has said in the past that ultimate responsibility for the safety of refugees should lie with individual governments.

The Uighurs deported last year were Muslims from Urumqi, the epicenter of an eruption of deadly ethnic violence in the summer of 2009 that left about 200 dead and 1,000 injured. In the wake of the unrest, Chinese authorities cracked down on ethnic Uighurs, causing many to flee. Some in the group were apparently activists who had photographic evidence of the Chinese military abusing protesters.

Twenty-two Uighurs left China in late September and carefully made their way south to Cambodia with the help of a network of Christian missionaries, arriving in Phnom Penh throughout the autumn of 2009.

Two men managed to escape before the group was deported from Cambodia. A regional news service reported last week that one of those Uighurs had resettled in a third country, while another fled to Laos and was deported to China in March.

Jesuit Refugee Services on Friday joined other rights groups calling on the Chinese government to account for the deportees.

“While to many people refoulement is just a word, JRS has seen the faces of those affected and possibly killed because of it,” the group said in a statement. “There was ‘B,’ a young and entrepreneurial man who could have been the next Steve Jobs if given a chance. Sensitive and intellectual ‘T,’ who made traditional Uighur food for the staff at JRS. ‘H,’ who spoke with sadness of the family he left behind.

“Refoulement is not an abstract term. It means imprisonment, torture or death.”

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