Interior Ministry police on Friday evening detained and planned to deport a group of ethnic minority Uighurs who had fled to Cambodia from China in the hope of receiving asylum from the UN, government officials said.
Police detained a group of 20 Uighurs who are to be deported as soon as the Interior Ministry locates two more asylum seekers who disappeared earlier this week while under the care of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ office in Phnom Penh, Interior Ministry Spokesman Khieu Sopheak said.
“They are criminals escaping from China and involved with a terrorist organization in China,” Lieutenant General Sopheak said.
“If they are really refugees, how did they know where the UNHCR office in Phnom Penh was?” he asked. “And when they arrived in Cambodia, they had their people pick them up from the Neak Loeung [ferry],” he added.
“We don’t care if China asked us or not. They are illegal immigrants, so we have to apply the law. They are going back the same way they came.”
Mr Sopheak declined to reveal where the group of 20 were being detained, stating only: “They are staying in a nice, big house right now.”
A human rights worker familiar with the asylum seekers said that the Uighurs were being held at the Interior Ministry on Friday night. The rights worker said he feared the group would be put aboard a Shanghai Airlines flight scheduled to leave Phnom Penh for Shanghaiat 1:30 am.
At 6:30 pm, Interior Ministry police vehicles with sirens and flashing lights were seen traveling at high speed escorting a mini-bus packed tight with people toward the ministry compound on Norodom Boulevard.
Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said that the government considered the Uighur asylum seekers “illegal immigrants” because they arrived in Cambodia without documentation.
“They came to Cambodia illegally, they came to Cambodia without any passports or visas, and they were illegal immigrants, and they violated Cambodian immigration law, and they have to be expelled from the country,” he said.
“We just found out they are illegal immigrants, and now that we have found they are illegal immigrants, we have to expel them,” he added.
Earlier on Friday, Mr Kuong told a reporter that the Uighurs were being interviewed by the government and the UNHCR to determine their asylum claims, and that their fate was still undecided.
“We don’t know right now, because we are waiting for clear results from the interviews,” Mr Kuong said on Friday afternoon.
Asked on Friday night when the government had determined the Uighurs were illegal immigrants and not asylum seekers, Mr Koung said only: “Recently.”
Mr Kuong also said that UNHCR was responsible for the disappearance of the two missing Uighurs.
“UNHCR should be responsible for the two guys,” he said. “At first there were 22, and now there are only 20.”
Ilshat Hassan, a US-based spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, said that the impending deportation of the asylum seekers was “a human rights disaster.”
“This is human trafficking,” he said of the government’s decision.
“The Cambodian government is selling our people for money. And I hope all the world’s countries—the USA and the UNHCR and all the human rights organizations
—step in now to save these people,” he said.
“They are not criminals,” he added. “They are one baby and two children. They are babies. And this is happening under the world’s watch.”
Toshi Kawauchi, head of office for UNHCR in Cambodia, referred questions on Friday night to Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR’s regional spokeswoman, who wrote in an e-mail that the situation was still unclear.
“We have received conflicting reports and are seeking urgent clarification ourselves,” Ms McKinsey said.
Qian Hai, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh, said that he could not comment on the situation because he had “no idea” what was happening. Mr Hai objected to a reporter’s use of the word “refugees,” declining to answer questions until the people in question were referred to as “Uighurs.”
“You think they are refugees?” he asked.
Brittis Edman, an Amnesty International researcher in Cambodia, said in an e-mail that Amnesty “still hope[s]” the government will not deport the asylum seekers.
“[T]he government must take into account the fact that Uighur asylum seekers who have been forcibly returned to China from other countries in the past have been detained, reportedly tortured and in some cases sentenced to death and executed,” she wrote.
“Cambodia is bound by the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of persons to a country where they are at risk of execution, torture or other serious human rights violations in a range of international instruments,” she added.
Cambodia is the only Southeast Asian nation to be a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, which prohibits the repatriation of asylum seekers who could face persecution.
The 22 Uighurs entered Cambodia about a month ago with the aid of an underground network of Christian missionaries. They fled their homeland after the deadliest Chinese ethnic rioting in decades killed almost 200 people in July.
Earlier this month, five Uighurs involved in the riots received death sentences in China. A further nine have already been executed.
This week, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said at a news conference that the Uighurs seeking asylum in Cambodia were suspected of criminal activities and that the “relevant departments” were investigating them.
The spokeswoman reiterated in a letter sent to The New York Times on Thursday that criminals should not be allowed to take advantage of the United Nations’ refugee system.
“China’s stance is very clear: the international refugee protection system shouldn’t become a shelter where criminals stay to escape legal punishment,” she said.
The detention and planned deportation of the Uighurs comes ahead of a scheduled Sunday visit to Cambodia by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping.
(Additional reporting by Frank Radosevich and The New York Times)