Poor conditions at a government social shelter in southern Thailand have forced more than 100 Uyghurs to escape after nearly eight months of detention in the Southeast Asian nation to which they had fled from northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region, an escapee said.
The mostly women and children who escaped in early November were part of more than 300 Uyghurs discovered during a raid on a suspected people-smuggling camp in a rubber plantation in Thailand’s Songkhla province near the border with Malaysia.
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 a 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.
About 20 of those who fled had been recaptured, according to a source.
‘Life is hard’
“Life is so hard [there],” one of the women who escaped from the shelter told RFA’s Uyghur Service. “The food is bad, and [portions are] reduced day by day. There was no one who didn’t get scabies there. They [camp authorities] would not take us to the hospitals."
“There were always Chinese agents coming there and threatening to take us back, so we were scared. We decided that instead of returning to China and risking our lives there, we would escape.
“We thought it was better to die than to be sent back to China. We climbed over the walls and sneaked out the door … Nobody, no country, is showing an interest in our situation or is concerned about us, so if we were deported to China, they [Chinese authorities] would eat us alive.”
The more than 100 who escaped were mostly women and children, and included only five or six men, said the woman who declined to give her name or location.
Authorities fear that some of the escapees may have fallen victim to a human-trafficking ring, according to reports.
Of those who escaped, about 21 women and children have been captured, the woman said.
“They cannot go anywhere now,” she said. “They are living under worse conditions [than before].”
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 woman who spoke to RFA said those detained in Thailand had been told that a Muslim community was helping out by providing food, but that they never received it.
Sek Wannametee, director-general of Thailand’s Department of Information, said Monday that no decision had yet been made whether to return the Uyghurs to China, the Bangkok Post reported.
The Uyghurs first had to undergo several immigration procedures, including nationality verification, he said.
“The nationality verification is ongoing,” he was quoted as saying. “Thailand insists on respecting human rights.”
When the refugees were apprehended, their nationality could not be confirmed. But U.S.-based Uyghur activists identified them as Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minority group from China’s Xinjiang region, according to a report.
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.
Qin Jian, China’s consul in Songkhla, said the refugees had not cooperated with Chinese authorities, including the verification of their nationality. As long as the Uyghurs did not have a criminal record, China would not prosecute them, he said, according to reports.
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.
Reported by Rukiye Turdush of RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.