Human rights groups have asked Malaysia not to deport more than 150 of China’s ethnic minority Uyghurs back home, fearing they could be persecuted on their return.
Malaysian authorities detained the 155 undocumented Uyghurs, including 76 children and 37 women, last week after finding them in two cramped apartments in the capital Kuala Lumpur during a raid, according to news reports.
The Uyghurs are currently being held in a detention center in Malaysia.
A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson told Agence France-Presse that the agency was seeking information about them from Malaysian authorities, but she declined further comment.
Malaysia had deported two groups of Uyghurs to China in 2011 and 2012, including those awaiting processing of their refugee claims, drawing criticism from international human rights groups and the U.N. refugee agency.
Human rights groups have called on Kuala Lumpur not to deport the Uyghurs to their homeland in China’s western Xinjiang region until it determines why they fled China and whether they can be classified as refugees entitled to international protection.
Xinjiang has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012. Recently, Beijing launched an anti-terror campaign in the region following deadly attacks blamed on Uyghur separatists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
Rights groups accuse 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.
Two human rights groups issued statements urging the Malaysian immigration authorities to grant the Uyghurs access to the UNHCR so they could seek asylum and have their refugee status determined.
“Even though Malaysia is not a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Malaysia is still bound by international law not to forcibly deport the arrested Uyghurs back to China as typically, those who were returned face severe persecution, including arrest, disappearance and torture,” said a statement issued by the Malaysian rights group Lawyers for Liberty.
Under international law, it is unlawful for a country to return individuals to a place where they may face persecution or torture.
The statement also noted that as a signatory to conventions on children’s rights and the elimination of discrimination against women, Malaysia has additional obligations to ensure the safety and well-being of the Uyghur women and children being detained.
A statement issued by Malaysian rights group Suraum said: “Whatever the allegations against them, they [the Uyghurs] should have the right to a trial, and their case should be heard and adjudicated by the judiciary.”
“The immigration department should not deport them without the decision of the court.”
In March, Thailand had detained 213 Uyghurs, including 80 children, who were found in a camp at a rubber plantation near the Malaysian border after fleeing ethnic tension at home.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and the Washington-based Uyghur Association of America had put pressure on the Thai government to not to deport them back to China where they could face persecution.
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.
When Malaysia had deported the six Uyghur asylum seekers to China in December 2012, despite a chance that they could have been tortured or persecuted, the rights group called the action a “grave violation of international law.”
In 2011, Malaysia had deported 11 Uyghurs who were jailed on separatism charges upon their return to China.