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In March, a Thai court ruled that a group of 17 Uighur refugees will remain in detention until their nationalities are proven. The refugees, who have been detained for over a year, belong to the same family, and claim to be Turkish citizens. The Turkish government has provided the Teklimakan family with passports and travel permission, yet China claims they are Uighur Muslims from Xinjiang, and has asked Thailand to repatriate them to China. Uighurs, who are ethnically Turkic Muslims, face religious persecution and international travel restrictions in China. The Chinese government claimed Uighurs attempting to flee the country were associated with terrorism and separatist activities, after violence occurred in Xinjiang.
Although the Thai court’s ruling temporarily protects the Teklimakan family from forcible repatriation to China where they would likely face persecution, the current stalemate has left them in what is at best an untenable situation. Conditions in Thai detention centers are notoriously inadequate, particularly for children, who comprise 13 of the 17 detained members of the Teklimakan family. According to a 2014 report from Human Rights Watch, Thai policies put child-detainees at risk for sexual and physical abuse, as well as malnutrition in what often amounts to indefinite detention.
While repatriation to China would constitute a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, there is no clear mechanism for legal redress as Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Furthermore, some believe that Thailand’s lack of a functioning asylum system and current political climate have rendered it susceptible to China’s diplomatic overtures. The resulting situation has left the Teklimakans and many other Uighur refugees in stasis, while Thailand apparently weighs respect for human rights against its desire to appease China.
The Teklimakans were not the first Uighurs to flee China and end up in Thailand. Turkey engaged in similar diplomatic efforts in 2014 to relocate 300 Uighurs detained in Thailand, amidst opposition from China. Earlier this year, over 100 of those refugees staged a hunger strike to protest unsanitary conditions in Thai detention centers, which led to disease and death. The Thai court’s ruling is particularly disappointing as some of the 300 detained Uighurs were reportedly told they would be released if Turkey verified their citizenship.
After the ruling, some expressed fear that the case would set a disturbing precedent for all Uighur refugees currently detained in Thailand. Those fears came to fruition in early July 2015, when Thailand began repatriating Uighurs allegedly based on citizenship. While Thailand allowed 173 Uighurs to travel to Turkey, it quickly became apparent the group was composed mainly of women and children, and that many Uighurs remained in detention. Any hope the remaining detainees would be allowed to travel to Turkey plummeted when Thailand acknowledged it had repatriated 109 Uighurs to China, after determining they were Chinese citizens. Although Thai officials claimed China had assured the safety of those returned, China quickly levied allegations of terrorism against the group of 109, and human rights groups have publicly expressed concern for their safety. As of July 12, 2015, it was not clear what, if anything, had happened to the Teklimakan family, but it is likely they were amongst those repatriated to either Turkey or China.
There is every indication that Uighurs will continue to transit Thailand in their attempt to flee persecution in China. In light of the Teklimakan case and the recent string of repatriations, Thailand’s willingness to protect the rights of Uighur refugees, and asylum seekers in general, has proven to be woefully inadequate. Even in the absence of a formal asylum system or binding commitments under the 1951 Convention, Thailand is obligated under customary international law to comply with the principle of non-refoulement. Although Thailand’s recent decision to stop turning away refugee boats, along with fellow non-signatories, Indonesia and Malaysia, had brought hope that the practice of non-refoulement was gaining traction in South-East Asia, its handling of the Uighur crisis suggests otherwise.
Absent a formal acceptance of its obligations under international law, Thailand should at least allow asylum seekers to travel freely to any country willing to accept them. Instead, its apparent practice of repatriation based on country of citizenship constitutes a gross violation of non-refouIement and a tacit rejection of asylum in general. In the long term, a country like Thailand, which finds itself at the forefront of several refugee crises, will have to reform its ad-hoc approach to asylum-seekers if its current government wishes to uphold its stated commitment to good governance and transparency.