UN ‘rebuffed requests to help Uyghurs’ in Thailand
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UN ‘rebuffed requests to help Uyghurs’ in Thailand

Bangkok office of refugee agency feared angering Beijing, internal documents show

The Immigration Detention Centre in Suan Phlu in Bangkok holds 48 Uyghurs who have been detained in poor conditions for nearly a decade. (Photo: Immigration Bureau Facebook page)
The Immigration Detention Centre in Suan Phlu in Bangkok holds 48 Uyghurs who have been detained in poor conditions for nearly a decade. (Photo: Immigration Bureau Facebook page)

The United Nations’ refugee agency rebuffed unofficial requests from the Thai government to help 48 Uyghur asylum seekers from China who have been detained in Bangkok for a decade, partly out of concern about angering China, human rights activists say.

Internal documents seen by The New Humanitarian show that the Thai government began informally asking the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) almost five years ago to help resolve the Uyghurs’ indefinite detention, and that agency staff in Bangkok advised against doing so.

Five of the asylum seekers are serving prison sentences related to a 2020 escape attempt, while the remaining 43 are being held without charge in the Suan Phlu immigration detention centre in the capital, amid sweltering, foul-smelling, cramped conditions. They are barred from communicating with their families, lawyers, or even other detainees.

Thai authorities have no plans to release the Uyghurs, according to a 2023 report by the National Human Rights Commission. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Under Thai law, the Uyghurs’ detention is categorised as a national security matter. This places them under the purview of the National Security Council (NSC), rather than immigration authorities. It also bars them from accessing the country’s National Screening Mechanism, designed to allow refugees to live in the country and access public services.

The UNHCR has long maintained that the Thai government has prevented it from accessing the Uyghurs to collect the information necessary to grant them refugee status and facilitate their resettlement in a third country, said The New Humanitarian, which was founded by the UN in 1995 but is now an independent, non-profit organisation.

The UNHCR has provided life-saving assistance to millions of asylum seekers around the world, but according to a 2023 report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), China’s growing influence over some host countries undermines “any political or humanitarian will to recognise and duly protect Uyghur refugees”.

The internal documents suggest China’s influence also extends to the refugee agency, rights advocates who reviewed them said. 

“The documents show that UNHCR has failed to uphold its mandate to protect Uyghur refugees,” said Fortify Rights director John Quinley. “UNHCR leadership does not seem to be proactively trying to find solutions for the Uyghur refugees who are spending years in detention.”

UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch, who reviewed excerpts of the documents, told The New Humanitarian that the agency continues to raise the Uyghur issue with Thai authorities, but “at no stage have we been permitted to access the group or engage with the caseload for the purpose of facilitating solutions. To suggest otherwise would reflect a misunderstanding of what has transpired”.

He declined to offer elaborate, citing confidentiality constraints.

Fleeing repression

A decade ago, Thailand became part of a popular route for Uyghurs fleeing intensifying repression in China and seeking to reach Turkey, which has historically supported Uyghur asylum seekers. Most of the group detained in Bangkok were part of a larger group of around 350 who were arrested by immigration authorities near the border with Malaysia in March of 2014. 

In July 2015, around 170 women and children from the group were released to Turkey. About a week later, 109 — mostly men — were deported to China. Their whereabouts now are unknown. The rest were kept in immigration detention in Thailand. At least a dozen have escaped, and five have died in detention, including two children.

Since 2019, one UNHCR document says, “there have been increased attempts by [the Thai government] to seek that UNHCR find a solution to the issue”, adding that there was a possibility that “Thailand may provide access to UNHCR” to the Uyghur detainees.

However, the agency’s Thailand office looked at the Thai government’s informal offer with suspicion.

“The [country office] view is that this is so that Thailand may use UNHCR as a shield to deflect the ire of China,” one document says.

Country office staff decided in late 2020 that “taking pro-active steps before the Thai authorities engage UNHCR officially is not advised”.

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

In February 2020, the documents show, the UNHCR regional bureau for Asia Pacific, the Thailand office and others discussed ways of dealing with “national security” restrictions in Thailand to help the Uyghurs.

One possibility was “gathering information through others”, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration, another UN agency.

However, the Thailand country office advised against “the gathering of information in order to explore solutions” without an official request by the Thai government and the concurrence of various UNHCR departments.

“One of the shocking aspects of these memos is that Thailand was apparently pressing UNHCR to get more involved, and UNHCR baulked because they feared Beijing would get angry and reduce cooperation or donations to the agency,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told The New Humanitarian after reviewing the documents.

“UNHCR must refocus on its mandate to protect refugees, and arguably no one in Thailand is more in need of that protection than these Uyghurs,” he said.

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