SONGKHLA: Twenty Uighur illegal migrants remained at large on Monday after breaking out of their concrete cell overnight at an immigration police unit in Sadao district, near the Thai-Malaysian borderline.
They are among 25 Uighur people arrested in 2015 and detained at the centre pending legal hearings after their claimed nationality was not confirmed. They do not want to be sent back to China, saying they fear for their safety.
Sources said the detainees managed to make two holes, each about 30 centimetres wide, through the outside wall of their cell, and then fled about 2am on Monday.
They used blankets as ropes to lower themselves about 3 metres to the ground below. They also used blankets to cover the concertina wire around their cell at the base of the wall, and then clambered over it. Five of the migrants were unable to make it out before police noticed the escape.
Police and soldiers, assisted by sniffer dogs, were trying to track down the fugitives.
Pol Lt Gen Sutthiwong Wongpin, acting chief of the Immigration Bureau, said he transferred six immigration officers out of the province immediately after news of the escape. They include the chief of Songkhla’s immigration office.
He said the Immigration 6 Division has ordered a probe into the jail break to determine if the officers at the detention centre were negligent or allowed the migrants to escape.
The six officers were ordered to report to the operation centre attached to the Immigration 6 Division - essentially inactive posts.
Three of those removed from duty include the chief of Songkhla’s immigration office, his deputy and an immigration inspector. The other three are lower-ranking immigration police. The transfer order was made by the Immigration 6 Division, which supervises the Songkhla immigration office.
As of now, 61 Uighurs are detained at detention centres in Ranong, Mukdahan, Nong Khai, Songkhla, Ubon Ratchathani and Bangkok. They are awaiting nationality verification before being deported back to their country of origin.
Pol Lt Gen Sutthiwong said he has ordered immigration police nationwide to strengthen measures to prevent a recurrence of any jail break.
Pol Capt Surasak Siripan, a deputy inspector of the Sadao immigration office, said local rubber tappers did not see any of the escaping migrants, because it was raining early Monday morning and they did not leave home to collect latex near the immigration centre.
Uighur are a Turkic ethnic group living primarily in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China who argue they are subject to widespread discrimination and have long been campaigning for an independent state.
Police said later on Monday that the holes were made in the wall of the detainees' toilets, which were not covered by a surveillance camera.
The wall was made of bricks and mortar, and it would take a long time to gradually dig through it using some hard object.
Police manned the cell around the clock but did not notice any irregular movements until they actually saw the migrants sneaking out of the immigration compound on a surveillance camera.
About 30 police, soldiers and volunteers were hunting the escapees, but it was difficult because rain had washed out their tracks.
Pol Lt Gen Sutthipong Wongpin, acting immigration police commissioner, said Monday that 61 Uighurs had been detained in Bangkok, Mukdahan, Nongkhai, Ranong, Songkhla and Ubon Ratchathani provinces pending their nationality confirmation and repatriation.
The camera footage shows some escapees outside the wall of their cell at the Sadao immigration police office early Monday morning. (Photo by Assawin Pakkawan)