A three-year-old boy among ethnic Muslim Uyghurs held at a government shelter in southern Thailand has died from health complications due to unhygienic conditions at the cramped facility, some nine months since the group fled northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region, according to a source monitoring the detainees.
The young boy had been suffering from tuberculosis—a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs—for around two months at the shelter in Songkhla province before he died on Monday, according to Seyyid Abdulkadir Tumturk, a Turkish national speaking on behalf of the boy’s family.
“[On Tuesday], just after afternoon prayer, I was informed that a Uyghur child of three died at the detention camp,” Tumturk told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“His name is Abdullah—he had been sick for two months and the doctors had diagnosed him with tuberculosis. Although the child received treatment several times under the close watch of authorities, he was unable to recover due to cramped and unhygienic conditions at the detention camp.”
Tumturk said that he was notified of the boy’s death by detained Uyghurs he met with at a camp in Bangkok—one of several facilities where Uyghurs from a group of 300 have been held since they were discovered during a raid on a suspected people-smuggling camp in a rubber plantation in Songkhla ten months ago.
When Thai immigration authorities discovered the group in March, they suspected them to be Uyghurs fleeing northwestern China and declared them to be illegal immigrants, although reports said some of them claimed to be Turkish.
Nearly 170 woman and children were placed in the government-run shelter in Songkhla, while the men were held in immigration detention centers in various locations until their nationalities could be verified, according to the reports.
Tumturk, who is a representative of the Turkey-based Uyghur organization East Turkestan Culture and Cooperation Association, said he had traveled to Thailand four times since July to meet with the detained Uyghurs and said they were being held in extremely poor conditions in six different locations.
“A normal person cannot imagine their situation at the detention camps—more than 60 or 70 people sleep in one cell. The weather is very warm and there are no air conditioners. They don’t even have clean changes of clothing or a way to wash themselves,” he said.
“Various infectious diseases and epidemics such as skin diseases, tuberculosis and others are spreading at the camps, and they have no way to receive effective treatment.”
Tumturk said he was aware of Abdullah’s dangerous condition before the boy’s death and had contacted the Turkish Embassy in Bangkok several times in the hopes of securing care for him, but he said that Turkey is still in the process of “very slow and complicated” negotiations with Thai authorities on the case of the detained Uyghurs.
He said he had informed Turkish authorities about Abdullah’s death and requested their assistance in bringing the boy’s body to Turkey for a traditional Muslim burial ceremony.
In need of help
Tumturk said he had been reluctant to speak with the media until recently because of the sensitivity of the situation and because he feared Thailand would send the Uyghurs back to China, where they could face persecution by authorities.
But he said life for the Uyghurs in detention had become so bleak that he felt the need to bring their situation to the attention of the international community.
“There are also pregnant women at the detention camps—six Uyghur women gave birth at the Bangkok detention center and four women gave birth at another center. Can you imagine how they can feed their babies in these kinds of conditions?” he asked.
“The most important thing is to treat the diseases of the detainees and to provide humanitarian help to them at first … They really need humanitarian help from the international community.”
In November, sources told RFA that poor conditions at the shelter in Songkhla had forced more than 100 mostly women and children from the group of detained Uyghurs to escape, though many have since been recaptured by authorities.
Rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, forcing many to flee overseas.
A spike in violence in the Xinjiang region, home to millions of mostly Muslim Uyghurs, has left hundreds dead during the last two years. China has blamed the violence on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
Many Uyghurs who were repatriated from the various countries to which they had fled have been punished.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has pointed out that the Chinese government frequently accuses Uyghurs, especially those seeking asylum, of being terrorists or separatists without substantial proof.
The Uyghur American Association in Washington, D.C. has urged the Thai government to allow the Uyghurs access to the United Nations’ refugee agency to submit asylum requests.
Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said he believed that Chinese authorities would not mistreat them if they were repatriated, the Bangkok Post reported.
On Wednesday, China and Thailand agreed to increase cooperation in the "prevention and the eradication of illegal immigration, drug trafficking, terrorism and transnational crimes," according to a joint communique issued by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs following a visit to Beijing by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Reported by Erkin Tarim to the RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Eset Sulaiman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.