After facing harsh international censure in the wake of Saturday’s deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China, the government has struck back, criticizing the UN High Commission for Refugees for its role in the debacle.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith blasted the UN refugee agency on Monday, accusing it of dragging its feet in assessing the Uighurs’ applications for refugee status, and leaking information about the asylum seekers to the media.
“UNHCR committed wrongdoing, because they kept the Uighurs for nearly one month and did not send them to another country,” Mr Kanharith said. “Two or three days would have been enough time [to process them],” he said.
“They wanted to pollute the government’s environment when they told the reporter, and nobody would have known [about the Uighurs] if they did not tell the reporter.”
Kitty McKinsey, the UNHCR regional spokeswoman, declined to respond directly yesterday to the minister’s claims.
When asked whether UNHCR had a process for expediting the refugee status applications of high-risk asylum seekers, Ms McKinsey said: “Yes, we do, but I want to emphasize that in this case we were really just assisting Cambodia, because they were in a transition phase.”
“I see what you’re getting at, and I see the Cambodian government is trying to put all the blame on us, but we don’t want to get into details,” she said.
“Despite this aberration, we’re still interested in working with the Cambodian government, so I don’t think it would be productive to enter into a debate with them in the media.”
Until this week, the government and the UNHCR jointly assessed refugee applications, but full responsibility shifted to the government on Dec 17 as part of a long-anticipated transition.
The UNHCR, however, has been criticized for ignoring signs that the government did not yet have the capacity to make refugee decisions on its own, and that it was vulnerable to political pressure, particularly in the case of the Uighurs.
“Despite all the signals of how at risk this group of asylum seekers was, and the political realities on the ground-which included not only susceptibility to pressure from China, but also repeated public statements by the Cambodian government asking UNHCR to take on the Uighurs’ case-there continued to be a lack of urgency and attention to the serious protection risks faced by these people,” Sara Colm, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said yesterday.
The deportation came two days before Cambodia signed $1.2 billion in loan and aid agreements with China, its biggest investor.
The Associated Press said yesterday it had obtained copies of written statements that several of the Uighurs gave to UNHCR saying they feared for their lives if forced to return to China. Several of them said they were involved in a series of July protests that escalated into China’s worst ethnic violence in years.
“If I am returned to China, I am sure that I will be sentenced to life imprisonment or the death penalty for my involvement in the Urumqi riots,” the AP quoted one man as saying. Another claimed he had been beaten and tortured in a Chinese re-education camp.
It is unclear how the AP obtained these documents, but Ms McKinsey said the UN had not even begun to take statements from the Uighurs before they were deported.
“Possibly they prepared some statements they wanted to give to us, but those were never given to us,” she said.
“There are a lot of different games being played around this whole issue,” she added. “I don’t what the source [of these statements] could be, but I can guarantee that we are a protection agency, and it is our role and obligation to protect the people who come to us.”
No news has surfaced about the deported Uighurs, who range in age from 6 months to 42 years, since they were repatriated this weekend.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry declined yesterday to discuss their whereabouts, but spokeswoman Jiang Yu reiterated that they are “suspected of crimes,” and also accused them of violating Chinese and Cambodian immigration laws.
(Additional reporting by Reuters)