Five months after the death in custody of a three-year old ethnic Uyghur boy in southern Thailand, questions remain over the circumstances leading to his demise and the conditions facing some 370 other Uyghur refugees detained for more than a year after fleeing northwestern China’s Xinjiang region.
Abdullah Abduweli had been receiving treatment for tuberculosis—a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs—for around two months at a hospital in Songkhla province’s Hat Yai city before he died early in the morning on Dec. 22, 2014, according to sources.
Abduweli contracted the disease at a refugee detention center in Padang Besar, in Songkhla’s Sadao district, where he and 70 other Uyghurs had been held since March 2014 under cramped and unhygienic conditions, the sources said.
Chalida Tajaroensuk, director of Thai civil society group People's Empowerment, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that she had been unable to visit the boy after he arrived at the hospital in late October because he was in critical condition.
“The doctors tried to help him and did their best to take care of him,” she said.
“He fell ill in detention and the tuberculosis [infection] went to his head, putting him in a serious condition.”
Tajaroensuk said Abduweli’s disease was the first serious health problem to affect a child in the Padang Besar detention camp, but that the Thai government had done little to improve conditions there since.
“It was the first instance in which a kid was hospitalized because of a serious condition, but the Thai government didn’t say anything [about his sickness],” she said.
“Even though he was not a Thai citizen, he was a citizen of the world and he had the right to life.”
In addition to the 70 detainees in Padang Besar, more than 300 Turkic-speaking Uyghurs are being held in Thailand after fleeing Xinjiang, where an upsurge in violence, which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state, has left hundreds dead since 2012.
Uyghur exiles and rights groups, however, have criticized Chinese authorities’ heavy-handed rule in the region—including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people—which they say has forced many to flee overseas, often through Southeast Asia.
‘Conditions were horrible’
Abdullah Abduweli's grave site at the Ban Nuea Mosque northeast of Hai Yat, April 2015. Credit: RFA
Seyyid Abdulkadir TumTurk, a representative of Turkey-based Uyghur organization the East Turkestan Culture and Cooperation Association in Thailand, told RFA that he had met Abduweli in the detention center in Padang Besar.
“There were a lot of kids there—some of them came with their parents and some came with the help of others,” he said.
“I was told that [Abduweli’s] mother was left behind in [China’s Xinjiang] Uyghur region, in Aksu [prefecture] I believe, and that he took this journey with his father, traveling with the group through Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand in a bid to find a life fit for a human being.”
TumTurk said he learned that when Abduweli was transferred to the hospital in October, his father Mustafa was allowed to accompany him under guard, but fled when they arrived at the facility.
“I wanted to learn how a father could leave his son behind and escape,” he said.
“But after speaking with him [by phone after he arrived in Turkey], I did not blame him. The conditions in the detention center were horrible—40-50 people living together in hot, filthy quarters, and his son was dying. He did not want to wait to be deported back to China.”
After Abduweli died, TumTurk said he tried to take his body to Turkey, but was refused permission by Thai authorities, adding that the boy was buried on Jan. 4 at a local Muslim cemetery in front of the Ban Nuea Mosque northeast of Hat Yai.
He said that when he located Mustafa and told him by phone that Abduweli had died, the father expressed grief and remorse for leaving his son behind, calling the decision “a loss that I must live with on this journey” and calling for Allah to grant his soul access to paradise.Future uncertain
The Uyghur detainees in Thailand remain in limbo more than a year into their detention, with Beijing demanding they be repatriated to China.
Since Abduweli’s death, Uyghur detainees in Padang Besar have complained of worsening conditions and poor food quality, and held a hunger strike in January to demand authorities improve the situation at the facility.
They told RFA that detainees lacked beds and restrooms at the government-run center, and that several people had become sick with various diseases.
Last month a court in Thailand rejected claims that a family of 17 suspected Uyghurs held by immigration authorities for a year had been illegally detained, though the group’s lawyer and supporters have vowed to appeal the ruling.
The group of four adults and 13 children—two of whom were born in custody—were detained by police in Thailand after they illegally entered the country from Cambodia in March 2014, and have since been claimed as nationals by both Turkey and China.
The court ruled that immigration authorities had the right to hold the 17, but made no decision on their nationality. According to Thai law, immigration officials must seek court permission for detentions lasting longer than a week.
In an April 22 press conference, Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan told RFA the government was working to verify the nationalities of the 17 and that if they were not involved in any legal proceedings in China that would prevent them from leaving Thailand, “we can send them anywhere—wherever they want to go.”
“If Turkey or any other third countries want to accept them, we will let them go, and that could be immediately—we are not involved in the dispute.”
He added that if the 17 were to be returned to China it would be under conditions that ensure their safety and that they do not face persecution at the hands of authorities.Reported and translated by Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.