The Cambodian government’s decision to furtively deport 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China on Saturday brought swift international condemnation this weekend, as observers said the deportation casts serious doubt on Cambodia’s ability and desire to implement international law.
Christophe Peschoux, country representative for the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, said he was dismayed by the deportation, which he said violates Cambodia’s obligations as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Convention Against Torture, and the Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
“The credibility and reliability of the system of refugee protection established in Cambodia, with the support of the UN [High Commissioner for Refugees], is now seriously questioned,” Mr Peschoux wrote in an e-mail.
Mr Peschoux also pointed out that Cambodia has in the past been a beneficiary of the international system to protect refugees: “Thousands of Cambodians have had their lives saved thanks to the status of refugee, including many of the leaders of the country,” he wrote.
In a statement released yesterday, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh also called itself “deeply disturbed” by the forcible repatriation, and “deeply concerned” about the welfare of the asylum seekers.
The Uighurs in question-19 men, a pregnant woman, a 6-month-old, and a toddler, all Muslims-hail from Urumqi, the epicenter of an eruption of deadly ethnic violence in July that left around 200 dead and 1,000 injured.
Some in the group of 20 were apparently activists who have photographic evidence of the Chinese military abusing Uighur protesters. The group left China in late September and carefully made their way south to Cambodia, possibly through Laos or Vietnam, with the help of a network of Christian missionaries, arriving in Phnom Penh about a month ago.
The choice of their destination was obvious: Cambodia is one of only two Southeast Asian nations, the Philippines is the other, to have signed the Convention on Refugees, and it has historically been friendly to asylum seekers.
That reputation for friendliness appears to be over, at least where China is concerned.
Although as late as Monday, the Cambodian government had agreed to cooperate with UNHCR in determining the asylum status of the Uighurs and asked the agency to identify a safe site where the Uighurs could be held, on Friday the group was detained by police who forcibly removed them from their safe house at gunpoint.
Earlier, sources said, the Uighurs were terrified that they were being watched by Chinese spies and begged to be moved out of the country quickly.
Observers said it was self-evident that the Cambodian government bowed to China’s interests, its biggest donor, which last week branded the Uighurs “criminals” and demanded their return.
China has pumped more than $1 billion into the Cambodian economy, and Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping arrived in the country yesterday for a three-day visit during which he is expected to sign 14 grant and loan agreements.
Richard Baum, a China expert and political science professor at the University of California, Los Angles, wrote in an e-mail yesterday that Cambodia was in a precarious position, caught between the abstraction of its international human rights responsibilities and the concrete benefits that the regional superpower, China, has to offer.
“In the end, because Cambodia is small and weak while China is large and strong, realpolitik [led] Phnom Penh to hand over the asylum seekers and risk the opprobrium of the outside world in order to mollify Beijing,” he wrote.
Sister Denise Coghlan of the Jesuit Refugee Services, which has worked with the Uighurs, said she was “desperately disappointed” with what she called “a betrayal of trust and a terrible violation of the international [refugee] convention, given that we’ve seen a relatively humane policy to refugees up until now.”
“It shows moral bankruptcy that Cambodia would bow to an order from a big donor, China,” she said. “In some ways, the humanitarian concerns were just completely outweighed by financial expediency.”
Mr Baum called the deportation of the asylum seekers “a one-way ticket to harsh retribution.”
In an effort to crack down hard on Uighur political activism, he said, the Chinese government is conducting a campaign of oppression, persecuting and imprisoning intellectuals, dissidents and other non-violent protesters.
China’s record on returned asylum seekers is dismal, according to Andy Swan, a researcher with the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.
Those repatriated to China after fleeing are regularly tortured, denied legal assistance and subjected to closed-door trials, Mr Swan said.
“Now that the 20 Uighurs have been returned to China, we are pessimistic about the possibility that they will be treated fairly,” he said.
“We expect them to face torture, to be tried in trials that are weighted against them, and for them to enter the New Year with either death sentences or lengthy prison sentences hanging over their heads.”
Ilshat Hassan, a US-based spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, had a less measured take on the matter: “The Cambodian government on their hands has our people’s blood.”
“This group of Uighurs will be killed. The Cambodian government will have responsibility for their deaths. They can take the money, but it will be bloody money. God will punish them.”