Cambodia: One year without answers

16 December 2010|Oliver White

22 ethnic Uighur Chinese asylum seekers were taken to this safe-house in Cambodia on 17 December 2009. Two days later, 20 of them were deported at gunpoint to China, to the outcry of human rights organizations. (ABCNEWS)

Bangkok, 16 December 2010 – As the one-year anniversary approaches, JRS remembers the Uighur asylum seekers that we came to know well, and again we ask the question: what happened to them? What happened to the pregnant mother and her two children? What happened to the man who had already escaped years of torture at the hands of the Chinese authorities? What happened to each individual who was trying to start a new life in a safe country?

Last year, the Uighur asylum seekers were returned to China, a country where their lives were in danger. While they were in Cambodia, JRS staff worked with them, trying to protect their right to live safely. Since then, JRS can only assume that these friends have been executed, tortured or imprisoned.

“I would prefer to die than be returned to China” is what one Uighur man, who came to be friends with the JRS Cambodia staff, said before they were forcibly returned to China on 19 December 2009.

They arrived in Cambodia in small groups between May and October 2009, seeking asylum from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the government from the persecution they said that they faced in China. Seeking asylum in a country that is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, they presumed that they would have access to fair and transparent processing of their claims and that they would be safe from forced return.

They were wrong.

On 18 December 2009, they were abducted at gunpoint from a safe-house, jointly managed by the Cambodia authorities and UNHCR, where they had spent one night. The next day, the 20 Uighur asylum seekers, were deported via chartered plane back to China. JRS stood helpless, watching this plane take off in the dark from the Phnom Penh airport. The plane, along with the Uighur people, disappeared into the night.

The following day, the Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, arrived in Cambodia and signed contracts worth over $1 billion US dollars. It was noted that “China has thanked the government of Cambodia for assisting in sending back these people.”

Refoulement – illegal forced return – is truly a worst case scenario and for the Uighur asylum seekers, was likely fatal. Newspapers have reported that four have been executed and fourteen imprisoned, however no official information has been released. Repeated questions to Chinese and UN authorities have brought no answer as to their whereabouts, and one year later our questions remain unanswered.

While to many people, refoulement is just a word, JRS has seen the faces of those effected, and possibly killed because of it. There was ‘B’, young and entrepreneurial who could have been the next Steve Jobs if given the chance. Sensitive and intellectual ‘T’ made traditional Uighur food for the staff at JRS. ‘H’ spoke with sadness of the family that he left behind.

One of the Uighur men spoke to JRS about the daily beatings and torture he suffered whilst in a “re-education through labour” camp in China. He was sentenced to one year for minor political offenses.

While in Cambodia he spoke publicly about this persecution and for this reason it is likely that upon return he has either been executed, imprisoned or again subjected to the horrors of re-education through labour. This is what the Uighur asylum seekers told JRS they feared before they were returned.

Refoulement is not an abstract term. It means imprisonment, torture or death. We call on the international community to remain vigilant against forced returns on this sad anniversary.

For further information please contact

  • Sr Denise Coghlan, JRS Cambodia Director on: tel: +8562078120574/+85512488950;

A time-line of events

May – October 2009

  • Uighur people, including a pregnant woman and her two children, arrive in Cambodia and register with UNHCR and the government as asylum seekers

November – December 2009

  • The media publishes stories of their presence in Cambodia. The asylum seekers complain of being followed and watched.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

  • UNHCR and the Cambodian government place the asylum seekers in a site reserved for refugees from Vietnam

Thursday, 17 December 2009

  • The asylum seekers are transported to a safe-house jointly managed by the Cambodian Government and UNHCR. After years of delay, the Cambodian Government signs a ‘refugee sub-decree’ relating to procedures for processing refugees and asylum seekers.

Friday, 18 December 2009

  • The Uighur are taken at gun-point from their safe-house and detained in a cell within the Cambodian Ministry of Interior.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

  • 20 Uighur asylum seekers, including two children and their pregnant mother, are forcibly returned to China via chartered airplane.

Saturday 20 December 2009

  • The Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrives in Phnom Penh to sign contracts worth $1.2 billion US dollars.

December 2010

  • It is rumoured that four of the 20 have been executed and others imprisoned.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

  • No information has been made public confirming the whereabouts or condition of these asylum seekers, no investigations have taken place.