On July 8, the Thai government forcibly returned 109 Uyghur refugees to China. By delivering these individuals into the hands of their persecutors, Thailand contravened international law. The action received widespread criticism. The United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Turkey and human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, all condemned the forced returns.
The Uyghurs now in Chinese custody are vulnerable to torture and a judicial process that will fall far from international standards. It is difficult to believe that the Uyghurs will receive a fair hearing when Chinese officials have already cast suspicion on them as so-called terrorists. Chinese government claims that these 109 Uyghurs were headed to Syria to join ISIS should be rejected as an outrageous lie devised to cover up a flagrant abuse of human rights.
The images of the returned Uyghurs on the plane to China released by Chinese state media will live long in the memory. The Uyghur refugees, men and women, are hooded, wearing a number on their chest and seated between armed Chinese guards. The pictures are meant to strike fear into the Uyghurs in East Turkestan. It tells them that the outside world will not offer refuge.
While these images send a domestic message, the international community should view them as a fitting representation of the Uyghurs' status in China. Divested of humanity, stripped of identity and at the mercy of Chinese state security forces, these 109 Uyghurs are the Uyghur condition writ large.
It was not the lure of fighting a war far from their homeland with Islamic extremists that drove these Uyghurs from East Turkestan; it was decades of repressive and discriminatory state policies. If the Uyghurs are fully aware of one thing it is not some notion of "jihad," but the daily reminders of their ruthless treatment at the hands of the Chinese state.
The policies of repression in East Turkestan are well documented and bear repeating once more. Political repression to the extent where the finest Uyghur intellectuals languish in jail, state violence against peaceful protestors, curbs on legitimate religious practices and beliefs, a state education system that has eliminated the use of the Uyghur language, economic discrimination and ethnically delineated poverty let loose through unchecked migration have all contributed to the alienation of the Uyghurs from their homeland.
The vast majority of Uyghurs who remain in East Turkestan peacefully resist these policies by attempting to hold on to the very Uyghur culture the Chinese government is trying to destroy. Nevertheless, in such an environment it is no surprise that Uyghurs attempt to flee overseas. It is an impulse of oppressed peoples across the globe seeking freedom.
A recent Human Rights Watch report describes how Uyghurs are unable to secure passports due to open discrimination. Therefore, many Uyghurs are left vulnerable to human traffickers and governments seeking China's favor when securing refuge overseas from China's repression. When Cambodia signed US$1 billion worth of deals with China only two days after forcibly returning Uyghurs in 2009, there is little to suggest the case was considered impartially and those Uyghur refugees' rights were at the forefront of government officials' thoughts.
As with any other individual, under international law a Uyghur has the right to seek refuge from persecution. These cases should be considered on the merits of the law and not politics. The fact that a third country, Turkey, was willing to accept the 109 Uyghurs in Thailand makes the forced return on July 8 even more shocking.
The forced deportations and the long-standing repression of Uyghur human rights shows the disdain the Chinese government has for international standards of behavior. Concern must now focus on keeping the cases of the returned Uyghurs in the public eye and on the remaining Uyghurs in Thailand. Those fifty or so individuals must not be sent to China. The fate that awaits them has precedent and should galvanize the international community to ensure universal rights norms are guaranteed.