Malaysia has repatriated nearly a dozen Uyghurs to China, drawing widespread condemnation from international rights groups who say they are likely to face persecution upon their return.
The deportation last week “constitutes a flagrant violation of international law on the part of Malaysian officials, and follows an extremely disturbing trend of Uyghurs deported from countries with strong trade and diplomatic ties to China,” the Uyghur American Association (UAA) said in a statement.
Most of the Muslim Uyghurs who have been deported so far were fleeing China’s restive northwestern Xinjiang region, where they say they face discrimination, which fueled deadly riots in 2009.
Pakistan deported five Uyghurs to China earlier this month. The country had previously deported “Xinjiang separatists” to China on at least three occasions.
Malaysian authorities defended the deportation Tuesday, saying that the 11 Chinese nationals who were sent back were part of a human trafficking ring.
"This group has nothing to do with any political group or asylum-seekers. They are all involved in people smuggling," Agence France Presse quoted a senior Malaysian police official as saying.
The Associated Press had quoted Malaysia’s deputy national police chief, Khalid Abu Bakar, last week as saying that the action against the Uyghurs was part of "stern measures that must be taken to send a message to human trafficking syndicates."
He said that the Uyghurs had smuggled other Chinese citizens into the country through Thailand before providing them with fake documentation to travel on to third countries.
An official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur said the agency had tried to meet with the men before they were deported but were refused permission by Malaysian authorities.
"We very much regret that the 11 individuals were deported without the opportunity for us to have access to them," UNHCR spokeswoman Yante Ismail told AFP in a statement from Kuala Lumpur.
The men were part of a larger group of 16 Uyghurs who were detained on Aug. 6 in separate raids in the capital and in the country’s southern Johor Bahru city, which lies across a narrow strait from Singapore.
Ismail said that the five Uyghurs who remain in detention had all previously applied for refugee status with the agency and that the UNHCR would continue to try to meet them "to assess their conditions and to finalize our review of their claims for asylum."
"We had expressed our opinion to the government of Malaysia that if indeed they had committed criminal offenses, that they undergo fair legal process in Malaysia and not be deported to a country where their lives or freedom may be at risk," she said.
A Uyghur student in Kuala Lumpur, who asked to remain anonymous, told RFA on Tuesday that the deportation was based on pressure from China and false documentation provided by Chinese authorities.
“Several of them escaped persecution after being targeted with baseless allegations in their homeland. Many of them came to Malaysia only to study,” said the student, who had assisted some of the men as a translator.
The student said the group of 16 Uyghurs included Zahir Tursun, 26, Abdughopur Tursun, 24, Salahidin Tursun, 22, Kurban Haji 30, Abdulla, 35, Halmemet, 36, and Abdukerim, 30.
Zahir Tursun, Abdughopur Tursun, and Salahidin Tursun are among the remaining group of five being held in detention by authorities and who the student said hold documents classifying them as “People of Concern” by the UNHCR.
A Uyghur living in Malaysia told RFA that Kurban Haji, who was among those deported, had married a Malaysian woman and had lived in the country legally for five years running a restaurant in an Islamic University in the capital. He had also assisted UNHCR staff several times as a translator.
The Uyghur resident said that as one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that had not deported Uyghurs to China, majority-Muslim Malaysia had been sought out by members of the minority ethnic group for refuge.
In recent years, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos have all repatriated Uyghurs allegedly following pressure from Chinese authorities.
Following reports of the repatriation, a number of international rights groups issued statements condemning Malaysia’s move.
The London-based Amnesty International said in a statement on Saturday that it has “very real concerns for the safety of these asylum seekers given the level of repression that Uyghurs face in China,” adding that Malaysia is in “flagrant breach of international law” for deporting the men.
Phil Robertson, deputy director the New York-based Human Rights Watch's Asia division, told the AP that the deportation was “the latest in a coordinated campaign by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs."
"The Malaysian police accused these Uyghurs of being people smugglers or traffickers, but then threw legal due process out the window" by deporting them instead of charging them under Malaysian law, Robertson said.
The Uyghur American Association, a U.S.-based exile group, condemned the deportation “in the strongest possible terms,” calling on the international community to raise the case of the remaining Uyghur asylum seekers who it said are currently in danger of being deported to China.
China has used its economic influence in the region to detain and repatriate a number of Uyghurs who have fled the country after being accused of carrying out “separatist” activities against the state.
Aside from Pakistan and Malaysia, Cambodia deported the majority of 22 Uyghurs who sought refuge status through the UNHCR shortly after they fled China in the aftermath of deadly ethnic violence that gripped the Xinjiang capital Urumqi in July 2009.
China also used its influence in May to convince Kazakh authorities to deport another Uyghur, Ershidin Israil, a former geography teacher, who was initially given refugee status by the UNHCR and accepted for resettlement by Sweden.
Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur and Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.