China responds to protests as relations worsen over Beijing’s policies towards the Muslim Uighur minority.
Thailand has sent nearly 100 Uighur Muslims back to China, a move likely to anger Turkey, as protesters targeted Thai honorary consulate in Istanbul against the move.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Turkic language-speaking Uighurs have fled unrest in China’s western Xinjiang region where hundreds of people have been killed in attacks, prompting a crackdown by Chinese authorities. Many have travelled clandestinely through Southeast Asia to Turkey.
China’s treatment of the Uighurs is an important issue for many Turks who see themselves as sharing a common cultural and religious background.
By forcibly sending back at least 90 Uighurs, Thailand has violated international law. In China they can face serious abuses including torture and disappearance.
On Thursday, Thai government spokesman Werachon Sukhondapatipak told reporters that “some 100” Uighurs were deported to China on Wednesday after finding “clear evidence they are Chinese nationals”.
He also revealed that an earlier group of around “170 Uighurs” were repatriated to Turkey in late June, making it the first public announcement by Thai authorities of both deportations.
Turkish press reported last month that 173 Uighur women and children had arrived in Istanbul from Thailand, where they had been detained for more than a year by immigration authorities for illegal entry.
Thailand’s embassy in Ankara announced on its Facebook page that protesters angry over the Uighur issue stormed the consulate in Istanbul late on Wednesday and warned around 1,300 Thais living in Turkey to “be on alert” following the attack.
The protesters, using sticks and stones, smashed windows and broke into the consulate, throwing folders and personal belongings on the floor, pictures and video footage published by local media showed.
Rights groups have expressed concern over Thailand’s decision to send the Uighurs back to China fearing they could face ill-treatment and even torture.
“It is very shocking and disturbing that Thailand caved in to pressure from Beijing,” Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the Reuters news agency.
“By forcibly sending back at least 90 Uighurs, Thailand has violated international law. In China they can face serious abuses including torture and disappearance.”
Thai spokesman Weerachon told reporters that Thailand had asked China to look after the safety of the Uighurs sent back.
“China said it would look after the safety of these people,” he said.
China is home to about 20 million Muslims spread across its vast territory, only a portion of whom are Uighur.