In an unexplained and deplorable move Thursday, Thai officials repatriated nearly 100 Uyghur refugees back to China where they will undoubtedly face harsh treatment at the hands of Chinese authorities. It remains uncertain why Bangkok repatriated the Uyghur refugees, though under international law the repatriation appears to be is illegal.
According to international lawyer Peter van Krieken, “Anyone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted should, of course, be considered a genuine refugee, and it would be quite wrong to put any pressure on such a person to return to a country which he fled for legitimate reasons.” Given the systematic effort on behalf of the Chinese government to suppress Uyghur culture and jail Uyghur activists, the Uyghur community that fled to Thailand certainly deserves temporary asylum. In fact, the only conceivably justifiable grounds for repatriation would be if the Thai government had reason to believe that the Uyghurs in question were linked to terrorist networks.
Not only does the move seem legally dubious, but it will undoubtedly bring harsh treatment to the Uyghurs in question. The Chinese government could pursue “separatism” charges on some of the repatriated Uyghurs. Such a charge can bring a life sentence in Chinese prisons that are notorious for torture, intense labor, and political indoctrination. At the very least, the repatriated Uyghurs can expect unrelenting and aggressive surveillance.