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UN declined offers to assist Uyghur asylum seekers detained in Thailand

‘UNHCR baulked because they feared Beijing would get angry and reduce cooperation or donations to the agency.’

This photo shows the entrance to the Suan Phlu immigration detention centre in Bangkok. We see a person driving a scooter wearing a red jacket in the foreground with the centre in the background. The image is stylized with halftone pattern. Jacob Goldberg/TNH
The entrance to the Suan Phlu immigration detention centre in Bangkok, where 43 Uyghur asylum seekers are detained without charge.

The UN’s refugee agency rebuffed requests from the Thai government to assist 48 Uyghur asylum seekers from China who have been detained in life-threatening conditions in Thailand for more than 10 years, according to internal UNHCR documents seen by The New Humanitarian.

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 Bangkok’s Suan Phlu immigration detention centre, subjected to 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 country’s National Human Rights Commission.

For years, UNHCR has maintained that the Thai government has prevented the agency from accessing the group to collect the information necessary to grant them refugee status and facilitate their resettlement in a third country.

However, the internal documents, which date back to 2020, reveal that the Thai government began informally petitioning UNHCR almost five years ago to play a more active role in resolving the Uyghurs’ indefinite detention, and that agency staff advised against doing this.

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 that China’s influence also extends to the UN’s refugee agency, rights advocates who reviewed the documents said. 

“The documents show that UNHCR has failed to uphold its mandate to protect Uyghur refugees,” said Fortify Rights director John Quinley, after reviewing the documents. “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 on 2 May that the agency continues to raise this 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 additional details on UNHCR’s approach to the case, citing confidentiality constraints.

‘A shield to deflect the ire of China’

Around 2014, Thailand became part of a popular route for Uyghurs fleeing intensifying repression in China and seeking to reach Türkiye, 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 Thai immigration authorities near the border with Malaysia in March of that year. 

In July 2015, around 170 women and children from this group were released to Türkiye. 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.

In February 2024, a group of UN special rapporteurs issued a letter to the Thai government attributing these deaths to the detainees’ “prolonged detention, inhumane conditions in which they were held, and inadequate medical care”. They demanded that the deaths be investigated as potential cases of summary execution.

The continued poor treatment of the Uyghur detainees heightens the urgency of understanding the 2020 documents and ensuring that UNHCR has changed course, refugee rights activists said.

Since 2019, one 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, UNHCR’s Thailand office looked at the Thai government’s 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.

“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.

Two Uyghurs have died in detention since the documents were written. 

“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,” Robertson said.

‘Isolated and neglected and rejected’

The Uyghur group are singled out for harsher treatment than other detainees, according to multiple human rights reports and a former detainee.

The former detainee, who is not Uyghur but shared a cell with four Uyghur asylum seekers at the Suan Phlu immigration detention centre in 2019, said he recalled the men being forced to remain in view of security cameras at all times and being subjected to more invasive searches than other detainees. He spoke on condition of anonymity to maintain his privacy as a refugee.

Moreover, in addition to being prohibited from contacting anyone outside the detention facility – a rule also imposed on Rohingya asylum seekers – the Uyghurs are also barred from speaking to any non-Uyghur detainees.

“If any other detainee was found talking to them, they would be punished. That detainee would not go out for exercise – could be for one day, could be more. It depends how he was communicating and how long the interaction was,” the former detainee told The New Humanitarian.

“They would have felt so bad and isolated and neglected and rejected,” he said. “I cannot put into words how they would have felt.”

Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission has described these special rules for Uyghur and Rohingya asylum seekers as forms of national or racial discrimination.

“The impasse is likely because Thailand does not want to confront China on the one hand and the rest of the international community on the other.”

The rules stem from the Uyghurs’ detention being categorised as a national security matter. This places them under the purview of Thailand’s National Security Council (NSC), a body headed by the prime minister, rather than immigration authorities. It also bars them from accessing Thailand’s National Screening Mechanism, designed to allow refugees to live in the country and access public services.

The NSC did not respond to a request for comment on the Uyghur detainees. 

According to the Thai National Human Rights Commission’s 2023 report, the NSC maintains that any solution to the Uyghurs’ detention must balance considerations around Chinese trade and tourism, relations with Western countries, as well as international law and human rights principles.

“China does not miss the opportunity to raise this matter as a standard talking point, to which Thailand does not have a response,” one UNHCR document says. “The impasse is likely because Thailand does not want to confront China on the one hand and the rest of the international community on the other.”

‘Waiting for politics’

The internal documents recount several instances when UNHCR staff deliberated on suggestions for breaking the impasse, only to turn them down.

One document summarises a February 2020 discussion between UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, its Department of International Protection, and the Thailand office. They discussed the potential willingness of Türkiye, the United States, and Canada to accept members of the group, which would require UNHCR to collect information about who the asylum seekers are and where their relatives are located. 

The document also mentions the possibility of “gathering information through others”, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN’s migration agency, IOM.

However, this section concludes with the Thailand country office advising 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.

Another section of the document describes a discussion between UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection and the agency’s Regional Bureau for Europe, in which the latter was “not in favour of UNHCR approaching [Türkiye] on this caseload”, preferring to encourage a bilateral process between Thailand and Türkiye instead.

“It’s time for UNHCR to get off the fence, find its courage and do the right thing by pressing forward with all its might to get access to this group now languishing in the Bangkok [immigration detention centre].”

The documents indicate that at least some staff were not satisfied with the agency’s approach. One document, after recounting previous decisions against taking further action, lays out a “proposed way forward”, positing that “engaging more actively and more urgently to achieve solutions for these individuals justifies the minimal risk of negative repercussions to UNHCR”. These staff recommended conducting protection assessments by gathering information through ICRC and IOM and from the asylum seekers’ relatives abroad, and seeking resettlement for as many as possible.

It is unclear what impact this advice had on the agency’s approach or ability to act on Thai authorities’ requests for assistance.

Neither the ICRC nor the Turkish and US embassies in Thailand responded to requests for comment in time for publication. An IOM spokesperson said the organisation does not have access to the Uyghurs and has not received a request from UNHCR to collect information about them.

Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, said: “It’s time for UNHCR to get off the fence, find its courage and do the right thing by pressing forward with all its might to get access to this group now languishing in the Bangkok [immigration detention centre].”

North American and European governments would support a determination by UNHCR that the Uyghurs are refugees who need resettlement and “push back against any negative Chinese government reaction”, he said. 

At least 10 detained Uyghurs have applied for international protection from UNHCR but received no response, according to Polat Sayim, director of the World Uyghur Congress Refugees Center.

Chalida Tajaroensuk, director of the People’s Empowerment Foundation, a Thai organisation that has been advocating on behalf of the detained Uyghurs, said she discussed these applications with UNHCR staff.

“They keep them in a folder, waiting for the right time – waiting for politics. Thailand cannot make China angry,” she said.

Baloch, the UNHCR spokesperson, did not respond to a request for comment on these applications.

“UNHCR continues to advocate with the Thai authorities for a humanitarian solution,” he said.

Pattern of neglect

The window for UNHCR to engage more actively in finding a solution to the Uyghurs’ detention may have closed since 2020, especially since a new government came to power last year. Moreover, it is not certain that more active engagement following the previous government’s requests for help would have secured the group’s release.

However, the agency’s apparent avoidance of such opportunities falls within a pattern of neglect described by Uyghur asylum seekers beyond Thailand.

The 2023 report by UHRP gathered insights from 11 Uyghur asylum seekers based in Türkiye, Pakistan, and India, all of whom shared the feeling that UNHCR was “inaccessible, unresponsive, and even irrelevant to them”.

Three of the asylum seekers in Pakistan said they were unable to obtain or renew UNHCR documents confirming their refugee status, leaving them at risk of deportation and unable to work legally. They described being bounced between the agency’s offices at their own cost, “only to find that the Lahore office wasn’t staffed at the time, or that services were actually not accessible in Lahore, even though the Islamabad office had assured that they were available”, according to the report.

“They are condemned to a life of semi-legal subsistence in their host countries, and their interactions with UNHCR are at best an added frustration rather than a source of hope,” the report says.

Peter Irwin, UHRP’s associate director for research and advocacy, told The New Humanitarian that documenting these cases is meant to encourage UNHCR to find ways to fulfil its mandate despite China’s efforts to obstruct their work.

Referring to the Uyghurs held in Thailand, Irwin said: “UNHCR is the world’s foremost refugee resettlement agency, so it’s difficult to accept that limits on access preclude them from addressing the issue in other ways.”

“To be honest, we’re really getting tired of waiting around for more people to die before anything happens,” he added. “It’s been 10 years, and [UNHCR’s] current approach just hasn’t worked unfortunately.”

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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