Uighur Asylum Seekers Sent Back to China

UN calls the deportation a ‘grave’ violation of international refugee law

Twenty ethnic minority Uighurs who applied to the UN refugee agency for protection while seeking refugee status in Cambodia, were deported to China on Satur­day night, government officials said.

Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said yesterday that 20 of the 22 Uighurs who sought refuge in Cambodia were put on a plane to China at about 9 pm on Saturday night.

“They were deported at nine o’clock last night,” Mr Sopheak said. “They went back through a Chinese plane.”

The whereabouts of the two other Uighurs are still unknown, Mr Sopheak said.

According to sources with know­ledge of the situation, at 6 pm on Friday, the Uighurs, including women and young children, were removed at gunpoint from the house where they had been staying while their refugee claims were being determined and taken to National Police Headquarters for questioning.

On Saturday evening at around 7 pm, they were driven in a bus with drawn window shades to the military area of the Phnom Penh In­ternational Airport, where a Chi­nese passenger jet was waiting with its lights off.

Mr Sopheak said the government had decided to send the asylum seekers back to China after an investigation revealed that they were criminals connected to a terrorist group in China, which he declined to name.

“They were led to Cambodia by the leader of a terrorist group, but I do not want to mention the name,” he said.

“If they are civilians, why didn’t they report to the Cambodian government?” he asked, referring to the Uighurs’ decision to seek help at the UN High Commis­sioner for Refugees’ office in Phnom Penh.

“Why are you concerned about Uighurs?” Mr Sopheak continued. “Why aren’t you concerned about the Khmer Krom who were sent back from Thailand? Why don’t you write an article criticizing the Thai government for sending Khmer Krom to Cambodia?” he said, before asking a reporter where his patriotism was.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan echoed Mr Sopheak’s claims yesterday, saying that the Uighurs were named in a “Chinese criminal list” and that the government had deported them because of its “obligations as a sovereign state.”

Mr Siphan attributed the government’s decision to Cambodia’s poverty, as well as the supposed criminality of the asylum seekers: “First of all, Cambodia is a poor country which cannot feed [the Uighurs] for a very long time. And secondly, we practiced the law, because they were criminals.”

UNHCR regional spokesperson Kitty McKinsey took issue with the government’s statements regarding the asylum seekers, explaining that the UN refugee agency had been in the process of assessing the Ui­ghurs’ refugee status when they were abruptly deported, and that they all held letters of concern from the UNHCR. Ms McKinsey called the deportation a “grave breach of international refugee law.”

“I don’t think anybody knows anything about who these people were, because their cases were not heard and their needs were not as­sessed,” she said by telephone from Bangkok, explaining that the asylum procedure does include provisions for excluding serious crim­inals from obtaining refugee status.

“All this information would have been examined in detail as part of the refugee status examination process if it had been allowed to run its course,” she said.

UNHCR sent representatives to the civilian wing of Phnom Penh International Airport on Saturday night in an effort to physically prevent the deportation, Ms Mc­Kin­sey said.

The UN agency also took several other measures to protect the Ui­ghurs, including sending diplomatic protest notes to “the highest level” of the Cambodian government, offering to evacuate the Ui­ghurs to a third country, and at­tempting to arrange a telephone conversation between Prime Min­ister Hun Sen and Antonio Gu­terres, the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees. None of these proved fruitful, she said.

Although the deportation came on the eve of a high-profile visit from Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said the expulsion of the Uighers and the arrival of the Chinese leader were totally unrelated.

There was no pressure placed on the government to deport the asylum seekers, he added.

“Why would a sovereign country put pressure on a sovereign country?” he asked.

“China and Cambodia are countries with sovereignty and independence. We just have a good relationship and cooperation.”

Qian Hai, the spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, declined to comment on the deportation.

         (Additional reporting by Frank Radosevich)



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