Conditions at six detention centers in Thailand housing hundreds of Uyghur refugees who fled northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region are deplorable, resulting in illnesses and deaths, according to a Uyghur filmmaker who visited two of the centers.
Abdurahman Ozturk said his assessment was based on interviews with unidentified refugees at the centers as part of a documentary he is making about Uyghur immigrants in Southeast Asia.
Some of the 300 Uyghur refugees who fled to Thailand about 10 months ago have claimed they are Turkish citizens, but Thai authorities and international media say they are Uyghur Muslims from Xinjiang where the minority group complains of ethnic discrimination by Chinese authorities.
Ozturk, who is also a television presenter at the Uyghur-language broadcaster Erk TV based in Istanbul, said Thai authorities allowed him to visit the men’s section of a detention facility in Bangkok.
“You cannot imagine the immigrants’ difficult situation,” he said about the detainees. “Most of them are suffering from skin diseases caused by trauma, pre-existing skin diseases, poor hygiene and hot or wet weather,” he said.
“They sleep on the cement floor, and they have no proper place to take a bath or wash their clothes.”
Thai authorities found the Uyghur refugees in March last year during a raid on a suspected people-smuggling camp at a rubber plantation in Songkhla, a city in southern Thailand near the border with Malaysia.
After Thai immigration authorities suspected they were Uyghurs fleeing from northwestern China, they declared them illegal immigrants.
Nearly 170 woman and children were placed in a government-run shelter in Songkhla, while the men were moved to immigration detention centers in other locations until their nationalities could be verified, according to previous reports.
In November, sources had told RFA that poor conditions at the shelter in Songkhla had forced more than 100 mostly women and children from the group to escape, although many had been recaptured by authorities.
Ozturk said the detainees he talked to are also suffering psychologically and have lost hope about the future.
“You think, ‘How can people spend their daily lives without privacy and without any hope for the future?’” he said. “In some places 50 to 60 people stay together in a single room, and in others there are hundreds. They live, sleep and are kept together just as herds under close watch.”
Ozturk also visited a second detention center in Hat Yai, another city in southern Thailand near the border with Malaysia, where a three-year-old boy named Abdullah died in a local hospital.
He said a doctor told him that Abdullah was alone in a hospital bed for about 45 days without his parents or other relatives before he died last month. The doctor at the hospital also said Abdullah was the third detainee from the Hat Yai detention center to die, according to Ozturk.
Abdullah had been suffering from tuberculosis—a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs—for about two months at the shelter but was unable to recover due to the unhygienic conditions in the crowded facility, according to Seyyid Abdulkadir Tumturk, a Turkish national who spoke on behalf of the boy’s family and a representative of the Turkey-based Uyghur organization East Turkestan Culture and Cooperation Association.
Some of the Thai offices of international human rights organizations and charities have been providing humanitarian help to the detainees, Ozturk said.
A Thai Muslim named Ismail who works at the Thai Muslim Society in southern Thailand said his organization delivered halal meals—food that is allowed under Islamic dietary guidelines— twice a day to detainees at the Hat Yai shelter, according to Ozturk.
Turkey is seeking to have the Uyghur refugees relocated to its capital Ankara.
The refugees will not be returned to China where they could face persecution by authorities, Turkey’s Daily Sabah newspaper reported.
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.
Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Eset Sulaiman. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.