More than 90 ethnic Uyghurs, including women and children, are facing immediate deportation from Thailand, where they have been detained for more than a year for illegally entering the country while fleeing persecution in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, a Uyghur exile group said Wednesday.
In a statement, the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) cited a source as saying the Uyghurs, who were detained by Thai immigration authorities, were transported from five detention centers across Thailand Wednesday to a military airport close to the capital Bangkok.
The move to deport the Uyghur detainees was also reported by Turkish newspaper Yenisafak, quoting a social worker who had assisted a group of the Uyghurs detained in Bangkok.
“We have learned that Uyghurs were taken to the military airport in handcuffs with three military vehicles,” Bilal Degirmeci of the Turkish aid group Cansuyu, told the paper.
“[The authorities] said 50 male and 25 female detainees were taken from the Bangkok detention center.”
According to the WUC’s source, the women and children from the five detention centers had already been taken onboard, while the men had “resisted getting on a plane heading to China” amid a heavy Thai army presence at the airport.
The Thai army is using “a special chemical gas” to knock the men unconscious and force them onto the plane, the source said.
Thai authorities could not immediately be reached to confirm reports of the deportation.
The WUC said it was “gravely concerned” about the fate of the Uyghurs, noting that the consequences of their repatriation were likely to include criminal allegations used to justify punishments that would be inflicted on them upon their arrival in China.
“It is anticipated that the Chinese government is behind this covert, and indeed heinous, operation which aims to bring these Uyghurs back to harsh punishment, which possibly includes capital punishment,” the WUC said.
“The children, in particular, are in deep shock, unable to comprehend the cruelty engulfing them at the airport. The crying plea of women is falling on deaf air, disappearing over the horizon. The situation of the men is still unknown.”
The WUC urged the international community to take action to prevent the forced deportation, which it called a “violation of international principles and laws.”
Reports of the forced deportation came despite the resettlement in Turkey last week of 173 women and children from among the detainees in Thailand, following long-lasting negotiations between the two countries.
The Uyghur arrivals in Turkey were among about 370 Turkic-speaking, Muslim Uyghurs held in Thai government-run refugee detention centers in Padang Besar—in Songkhla province’s Sadao district—and the cities of Bangkok, Rayong and Trat, since March 2014 in what visitors have described as cramped and unhygienic conditions.
Many have complained of worsening conditions and poor food quality, and detainees held a hunger strike in January to demand authorities improve the situation at the Padang Besar facility. One ethnic Uyghur boy detained there died last December after contracting tuberculosis.
The detainees had remained in limbo more than a year into their detention, with Beijing demanding they be repatriated to China.
During the last couple of years, Uyghurs have been leaving China in droves to escape persecution and repression by authorities who consider them separatists and terrorists and have cracked down on their religion and culture. Chinese authorities have blamed an upsurge of violence in Xinjiang since 2012 on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
Several Asian nations—including Thailand—have bowed to demands by Beijing to repatriate Uyghurs fleeing persecution in Xinjiang, despite warnings from rights groups and the Uyghur exile community that they may face prison sentences upon their return.
According to the WUC, the whereabouts of all the Uyghurs who were previously deported from countries neighboring China—including Thailand—remain unknown.
“There is no transparency, let alone due legal proceedings, applied to the cases of the Uyghurs deported,” the group said in its statement.
“It is highly likely that the fate of these Uyghurs at the Thai military repeats, tragically, the fate of those Uyghurs who exposed to the very persecution from which they struggled to escape at all costs, if no international intervention is made.”
Reported by Joshua Lipes and RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.