Cambodia is facing mounting pressure over the fate of 22 Uyghurs who fled China to avoid prosecution for their alleged involvement in violent protests earlier this year.
Aided by an underground network of Christian missionaries, the group covertly crossed China’s southern border into Vietnam and then Cambodia in recent weeks, according to the Uyghur American Association (UAA), a US-based advocacy group.
In Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, the whereabouts and condition of the group remains unknown.
Besides the Philippines, Cambodia is the only Southeast Asian signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, committing it to protect people fleeing persecution who qualify as refugees.
However, the government has remained tightlipped about the asylum seekers, who have apparently applied for refugee status with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Phnom Penh.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told IRIN they were “under the responsibility of the UNHCR”, but would not elaborate on their case.
For more than a decade, UNHCR in Cambodia, with government officials, has been responsible for determining whether asylum seekers should be given refugee status.
Cambodia opened its own refugee office last year in a step UNHCR said underlined the government’s increased efforts to handle asylum cases through due diligence and international procedures. The agency said it was phasing down its role as the government assumes more responsibility, but that it was still part of the process.
“During this transition phase, asylum requests are being jointly assessed by the government and UNHCR,” Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR regional spokeswoman, told IRIN. She would not comment on the group of Uyghurs.
Uyghurs are a Turkic, Sunni Muslim minority native to China’s far western Xinjiang Province, which has seen bombings, attacks and riots in recent years, blamed by the Chinese government on Uyghur separatists demanding autonomy.
However, rights groups say the ethnic identity of Uyghurs in western China is being systematically eroded, and cite serious human rights abuses against them.
Violent protests erupted in July between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China, whose increased migration to the region has heightened ethnic tensions. Nearly 200 people were killed and another 1,600 wounded, according to media reports.
Advocacy groups say the asylum seekers in Cambodia were witness to violence against the Uyghur demonstrators, but China says they are outlaws.
Despite being a signatory to the refugee convention, as well as the 1984 Convention Against Torture, asylum seekers have had a mixed reception in Cambodia, analysts say.
|This case could be a litmus test for the Cambodian government on asylum protection, given how powerful China is in the region|
“Cambodia has in the past made a strong effort to protect refugees, but there are also clear cases where asylum seekers from countries that Cambodia has a close political and economic relationship with, such as China and Vietnam, have been repatriated to face persecution,” Sara Colm, a researcher on Cambodia with Human Rights Watch, told IRIN.
Since 2001, thousands of ethnic minority Montagnards fleeing Vietnam after crackdowns on their protests for religious freedom and land rights have been granted refugee status by the Cambodian government, and allowed to resettle in third countries, said Colm.
But many others have been arrested and deported back to Vietnam. And at least four Chinese asylum seekers under the protection of UNHCR were arrested in Phnom Penh in 2002 and 2004 and sent back to China, Colm added.
China is a major donor to impoverished Cambodia, and rights groups say they fear the country will acquiesce to pressure from Beijing to return the Uyghurs.
Ilshat Hassan, vice-president of the UAA, said his organization expected back-channel intervention from the Chinese government. “If they are sent back to China, they will face the death penalty and the Cambodian government will be an accomplice,” he told IRIN.
China has already executed nine Uyghurs who took part in the protests and condemned another five to death.
Hassan said his organization had found a third country willing to provide asylum to the Uyghurs but declined to name it, citing concerns that China would pressure it to close its doors.
Amnesty International on 16 December urged Cambodia’s deputy prime minister and minister of interior, Sar Kheng, to ensure a fair asylum process for the Uyghurs.
“Amnesty International believes that these Uyghurs would be particularly vulnerable to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” it said on its website.
Brittis Edman, a researcher on Cambodia with Amnesty International, told IRIN this case “could be a litmus test for the Cambodian government on asylum protection, given how powerful China is in the region”.