UN officials refuse to help 48 Uighur Muslims detained in Thailand

The United Nations refugee agency has rejected the Thai government’s pleas to help 48 Uyghur Muslim asylum seekers from China who have been held in Bangkok for almost a decade. U.N. officials were concerned about China’s anger, human rights groups said.

Internal records obtained by The New Humanitarian show that almost five years ago, the Thai government began unofficially asking the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help resolve the indefinite detention of Uyghurs, despite that agency employees in Bangkok advised against this.

Five of the asylum seekers are serving prison sentences for trying to flee in 2020, while the remaining 43 are being held without trial at the Suan Phlu immigration detention center in the capital, which is hot, smelly and overcrowded. They cannot communicate with their relatives, lawyers or even other detainees.

According to the National Human Rights Commission’s 2023 report, Thai authorities have no plans to free the Uyghurs. Thailand has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Thai law classifies the arrest of Uyghurs as a national security matter. This places them under the jurisdiction of the National Security Council (NSC), and not under immigration authorities. It also prevents them from taking advantage of the country’s National Screening Mechanism, which allows refugees to live in the country and receive public services.

The UNHCR has long alleged that the Thai government has denied it access to Uighur Muslims to gather the information needed to grant them refugee status and facilitate their resettlement in a third country, according to The New Humanitarian, founded by the UN. in 1995, but is now an independent non-profit organization.

The UNHCR has provided life-saving assistance to millions of asylum seekers around the world, but the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) reports that China’s growing influence over some host countries has “challenged any political or humanitarian will to recognize and properly protect Uyghur refugees.” undermines. in 2023.

The internal documents show that China’s influence extends to the refugee agency, according to rights groups that have studied them.

“The documents show that UNHCR has failed to uphold its mandate to protect Uyghur refugees,” said John Quinley, head of Fortify Rights. “The UNHCR leadership does not appear to be proactively seeking solutions for the Uyghur refugees who have been in detention for years.”

UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch, who reviewed excerpts from the documents, told The New Humanitarian that the organization continues to raise the issue of Uighur Muslims with Thai authorities, but “at no point have we been allowed to access to the group or to deal with matters for the purpose of facilitating solutions.” To say otherwise would be to misunderstand what happened.”

He declined to elaborate further, citing confidentiality issues.

Uyghur Muslim avoiding oppression

Thailand became a favored route for Uyghurs fleeing rising authoritarianism in China to Turkey, which traditionally hosts Uyghur asylum seekers. The majority of people apprehended in Bangkok were part of a larger group of about 350 people detained by immigration police near the Malaysian border in March 2014.

In July 2015, about 170 women and children were freed from the group in Turkey. About a week later, 109 people were deported to China, most of whom were men. Their current location is unknown.

The rest were held in immigration custody in Thailand. At least a dozen people have escaped and five have died in custody, including two children.

According to a UNHCR document, “since 2019, there have been increased attempts by (the Thai government) to try for UNHCR to find a solution to the issue,” with the possibility that “Thailand could grant access to UNHCR” to the Uyghur detainees.

However, the agency’s Thai branch viewed the Thai government’s informal offer with suspicion.

“The country office’s position is that this is so that Thailand can use the UNHCR as a shield to ward off China’s anger,” a separate memo said.

In late 2020, country office staff decided that “taking proactive steps before Thai authorities officially engage UNHCR is not advised.”

UNHCR in China

One document warns of the “risk of negative repercussions on UNHCR’s operation in China” as well as “funding/support to UNHCR,” including 10 junior staff posts and $7.7 million in projects.

According to the data, in February 2020, UNHCR’s Regional Office for Asia-Pacific, Thailand Office and others explored methods to help Uyghur Muslims despite “national security” restrictions in Thailand.

One option was to “gather information from others,” such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration, another UN body.

However, Thailand’s country office warned against “collecting information to explore solutions” without an official request from the Thai government and the approval of the relevant UNHCR offices.

“One of the shocking aspects of these memos is that Thailand apparently pressured UNHCR to become more involved, and UNHCR refused because they feared Beijing would become angry and reduce cooperation or donations to the agency,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights. Look, The New Humanitarian told me after reviewing the documents.

“UNHCR must refocus on its mandate to protect refugees, and probably no one in Thailand needs that protection more than these Uyghurs,” he told reporters.