The government of Malaysia should ensure that 11 detained migrants are not forcibly deported to China, Human Rights Watch said today.
The migrants should have urgent access to refugee status determination proceedings by the United Nations refugee agency.
The detainees appear to be among a group of 20 people who escaped from immigration detention in Thailand in November 2017. China claims that they are Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim, Turkic minority that originates from western China. After group members were initially detained in Thailand, they identified themselves as Turkish citizens and asked to be sent to Turkey.
“Uyghurs forcibly returned to China face credible threats of imprisonment and torture, so it’s critical that Malaysia does not forcibly expel to China anyone the Chinese claim is a Uyghur,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Malaysian authorities should allow these individuals access to a fair process to determine their refugee claims, not ship them to China based on Beijing’s demands.”
Under customary international law, Malaysia is obliged to ensure that no one in its custody is forcibly sent to a place where they would risk being subjected to persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations.
The 11 people in Malaysian custody were part of a group of more than 200 detained in Thailand in 2014. Thailand forcibly returned more than 100 of the group to China in July 2015 in a move that brought international condemnation. The whereabouts and wellbeing of those who were returned is unknown.
Malaysia is one of several countries that in recent years has forcibly returned Uyghurs to China in violation of international law.
In September 2017, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Zahid Hamidi, said Malaysia had arrested 29 Uyghur “militants” involved with the Islamic State (also known as Isis) since it began sharing biometric data with China in 2011.
On 31 December 2012, Malaysia deported six Uyghur men to China. The six had been detained earlier in 2012, allegedly for attempting to leave Malaysia on fake passports.
While in detention, the men were registered by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Although all six had refugee status determinations under review, on 31 December, Malaysian police transferred the men to the custody of Chinese authorities, who escorted them from Malaysia to China on a chartered flight.
Human Rights Watch has been unable to obtain any further information from Malaysian or Chinese government sources as to the six men’s whereabouts or wellbeing.
Radio Free Asia reported in December 2012 that friends and a relative of 11 Uyghurs deported to China from Malaysia in August 2011 said that they were subsequently imprisoned for “separatism”.
Pervasive ethnic discrimination, severe religious repression, and increasing cultural suppression – justified by the Chinese government in the name of the “fight against separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism” – fuel rising tensions in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
On 7 March 2014, Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri announced a “severe crackdown” on “separatist activities,” which he blamed on foreign forces “who don’t want to see a united, strong China led by socialism and by the party”.
Nine months later, Ilham Tohti, a well-regarded ethnic Uyghur economist and peaceful critic of the Chinese government, was sentenced to life in prison for “separatism” after a grossly unfair trial.
The Chinese government routinely places restrictions on observing the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, and some Uyghurs are being required to give DNA samples and other biodata to obtain passports.
China’s state media reports selectively on counter-terrorism operations, but does not provide information on the number of deaths of local residents in such raids or the treatment of those detained in the operations, among other information. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Uyghurs have fled the country in recent years.
“Past cases have shown that Uyghurs returned to China are almost always at risk of persecution,” Adams said. “Malaysia needs to ensure that these 11 people are protected and not sent into harm’s way.”