PHNOM PENH—Ethnic minority Uyghurs from northwestern China, seeking asylum in Cambodia, say two would-be refugees in their group remain missing since they were detained by Vietnamese border authorities in early October.
Twenty-two Uyghurs managed to cross in smaller groups from Vietnam into Cambodia, where the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operates an office, and where they are now seeking political asylum and resettlement in a third country.
But two men in one of those groups were forced to remain in Vietnam because their group of five could afford help in crossing the border for only three people, one of the asylum-seekers in Cambodia said.
“Five of us traveled as a group at the same time from China. We had a very small amount of money when we arrived in Vietnam—only enough for three of us to pay smugglers,” one of them said in an interview.
They cast lots with numbers from one to five, he said, with the understanding that numbers four and five would have to stay behind.
“They had no choice but to be left behind and face a more dangerous fate,” one of the Uyghurs said.
In an interview Oct. 6, one of the left-behind Uyghurs—a Turkic, mostly Muslim ethnic group living mostly in northwestern China—said the two of them had headed on their own toward what they thought was Cambodia, and ended up at the Vietnam-Lao border instead.
“Our goal was to cross the border to get to Cambodia, but we went the wrong way to Laos by mistake,” one of them said.
Uyghurs interviewed for this report all asked that the names of the asylum-seekers involved not be used.
“We have been here almost 24 hours—we don’t know what they think of us because of the language barrier,” he said at the time.
“We tried to explain with the few English words we know that we are not Chinese, we are Turkish. We are not sure if they understand.”
A day later, on Oct. 7, one of the detained men said both had tried to escape but only one of them succeeded.
“The officers caught me about a half-mile away,” he said.
Other Uyghurs, now in Cambodia, said the second man had fled into the forest.
Both men have been unreachable since then, they said.
Ilshat Hassan, vice president of the Uyghur American Association, said he had spoken with the police and quoted them as saying, “They are holding Chinese passports, but they don’t speak Chinese and don’t look Chinese.”
The officer also reportedly said border guards were awaiting instructions on how to handle the men.
The 22 Uyghurs in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, include two children and are currently in the care of international Catholic organization Jesuit Refugee Service, which declined to comment.
The Uyghurs say they fear being returned to China, which has close ties with Cambodia, Uyghur sources said. They notably fear detention for allegedly taking part in deadly ethnic riots in July in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Uyghur sources in Asia say.
UNHCR and Cambodian officials in Phnom Penh declined to comment on the case, although it has been learned that the UNHCR has met with the Uyghurs several times in small groups.
China has meanwhile tightened its southeastern border, Uyghur sources say, and has detained 31 Uyghurs since Sept. 15 in the southern cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou and in the central city of Kunming, either for trying to flee the country or for allegedly aiding others in fleeing China.
Clashes first erupted between Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs in Urumqi on July 5, and at least 200 people were killed, by the Chinese government’s tally. Twelve people have since been sentenced to death in connection with the violence.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it has documented the disappearances of 43 men and boys in the Xinjiang region, but that the actual number of disappearances is likely far higher.
Police have meanwhile detained more than 700 people in connection with the unrest, according to earlier state news reports.
Uyghurs, a distinct and mostly Muslim ethnic group, have long complained of religious, political, and cultural oppression by Chinese authorities, and tensions have simmered in the Xinjiang region for years.
Original reporting by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur service with additional reporting by RFA's Khmer service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.