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Rights group calls for investigation after Uyghur man dies in Thai detention

‘Many times, he went unconscious, fell down, and then he asked for the doctor, but they never took him to the doctor.’

A group of people, thought to be Uyghurs, are inside the back of the vehicle. They are pictured behind iron bars. Andrew RC Marshall/Reuters
People thought to be Uyghurs are transported to a detention facility in southern Thailand in 2014. Around 350 Uyghur asylum seekers were arrested by Thai authorities in 2013 and 2014.

A human rights organisation is calling on the Thai government to investigate the death of a Uyghur asylum seeker who had been in immigration detention for nearly nine years.

Aziz Abdullah, 49, was part of a group of around 350 Uyghur men, women, and children who left China and were arrested upon entering Thailand in 2013 and 2014. 

In 2015, 172 of the women and children were resettled in Turkey. A few weeks later, the Thai authorities deported 109 of the group to China. The UN Special Rapporteur on torture at the time expressed concern that the move amounted to the international crime of refoulement exposing the group to the risk of torture. 

Around 50 Uyghur asylum seekers, including Abdullah, have since remained in Thai immigration detention, held almost completely incommunicado, without access to lawyers or international aid organisations. They were kept in various Immigration Detention Centres (IDCs) throughout Thailand until 2022, when an escape attempt prompted Thai authorities to consolidate the group at Bangkok’s Suan Phlu IDC.

“Their living conditions are very bad,” Polat Sayim, director of the World Uyghur Congress’s Refugees Center, told The New Humanitarian. 

Sayim, who spent two years in Thailand monitoring the group, said they are unable to leave the small rooms they share with dozens of other detainees, receive just two meals per day, do not receive clean water, and are forced to endure secondhand smoke. 

Aziz Abdullah’s health problems date back at least to 2018, when he began reporting problems with his lungs and heart, according to Sayim.

“Many times, he went unconscious, fell down, and then he asked for the doctor, but they never took him to the doctor,” he told The New Humanitarian by phone.

“About three weeks ago, he started vomiting blood and could not eat food,” Sayim said. “Whatever he ate, he threw up.” 

This incident prompted Abdullah’s cell mates to inform the police who staff the IDC of his condition. According to Sayim, he was seen by two doctors – an IDC staff doctor and one from outside – but they didn’t seem to think much was wrong with him and took no action. 

“By locking these Uyghur men up in immigration detention and essentially throwing away the key, Thailand is blatantly violating their international human rights obligations.” 

Abdullah was then placed in a room by himself, where he spent eight days, during which time he began speaking to himself and lost control of his bowels, according to Sayim. He was then brought back to his shared room. 

On 11 February, Sayim said, Abdullah collapsed and became unresponsive. Only then was he brought to a hospital, where he was proclaimed dead that evening. A Thai death certificate, a copy of which was shared with The New Humanitarian by Sayim, lists pneumonia as the cause of death. 

The New Humanitarian tried to reach the Suan Phlu IDC for comment but the number appeared to have been disconnected. 

A staffer at Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission told The New Humanitarian she wasn’t aware of Abdullah’s death, nor the circumstances surrounding it. 

Abdullah is the fourth Uyghur asylum seeker to die in Thai detention over the past nine years: Two children died in 2014, and a 29-year-old man died in 2018, according to the World Uyghur Congress. 

The Uyghur rights group has demanded that the Thai government investigate Abdullah’s death, release the remaining 49 asylum seekers from detention, and allow them to seek resettlement.

“By locking these Uyghur men up in immigration detention and essentially throwing away the key, Thailand is blatantly violating their international human rights obligations,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director. 

“These are refugees who should be protected. It is the epitome of Thai government cruelty that they continue to hold these men in cramped cells 24 hours a day without ever seeing the sun, and with inadequate food and medical care. The only surprising thing is that more of these detainees have not already died,” he added.

“Thailand must end this nightmare, and let them go so they can travel to their desired destination and reunite with their families overseas.” 

Edited by Andrew Gully. 

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