Of 25 ethnic minority Uyghurs from China who broke out of a Thai immigration detention center after tunneling through an exterior wall this week, 19 have remained uncaught after police detained six during and after the daring escape.
Local media reports said Chinese officials have stepped up the pressure on Thai police to repatriate the six who were redetained, but police responded that they won’t be sent home unless their nationality can be confirmed.
China is home to an estimated 9.2 million, mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, and has successfully pressured its smaller neighbors into repatriating political refugees in the past.
But Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress exile group, said he has doubts over whether Bangkok will do as it promises.
“The information that gets released by the Thai authorities sometimes doesn’t match what they are actually doing, which is very worrying,” Raxit said. “Another crucial issue is the ever-closer relationship between China and Thailand.”
He said the Uyghurs still on the run are likely to be terrified of being redetained and forcibly repatriated.
“The people who did escape will be living in extreme fear and despair, I think,” Raxit said. “They have been in Thailand for so long now, and they have had a constant sense of danger, the threat of being sent back at any point.”
“They made the decision to escape so as to avoid that threat.”
The Uyghurs escaped from an immigration detention center near the Malaysian border before dawn on Monday by digging two holes and using blankets as ladders to escape, officials said.
The Uyghurs, who had been held for two years at the center in Sadao, a district of southern Songkhla province, escaped from their cells at about 2 a.m. and could have crossed into Malaysia.
A police man-hunt searched a nearby rubber plantation with dogs, but rain had helped to obscure their footprints.
In 2015, rights groups condemned Bangkokâ€™s decision to deport 109 Uyghurs to China, which branded them “terrorists” and broadcast photos of them being flown back with hoods over their heads.
An official who answered the phone at the Chinese consulate in Songkhla province declined to comment, saying he’d have to check first with his superiors.
Former World Uyghur Congress President Rebiya Kadeer has called on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to step in and protect the Uyghurs who were redetained during the jailbreak, whose status as refugees is protected under international law.
Maya Wang, a China researcher with the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) group, said Uyghurs who escape to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia face an uncertain fate.
“The Chinese government frequently uses the fact that some Uyghurs have been accused of terrorism as an excuse to persecute them,” Wang said. “It also uses [terrorism] as a pretext to request that other countries repatriate them.”
Thailand-based political activist Li Xiaolong said conditions are miserable inside Thailand’s immigration prisons.
“It is extremely overcrowded, so much so that people have to sleep pressed up against each other at night,” Li, who was detained after a sailing yacht he chartered foundered off the Thai coast, told RFA.
“The food is unacceptable … and if you break the rules of jail, you can be even more harshly punished,” he said. “In the detention center where I was held, the guards would beat an offending inmate with a rattan cane about one meter long.”
“I can totally understand why these people would have longed to regain their freedom.”
In Bangkok, The Nation newspaper called on the authorities in an editorial to respect the rights in international law of undocumented refugees.
It said six senior Thai immigration officials had been transferred as a direct result of the Uyghurs’ escape, adding that an estimated 300 Uyghurs are currently languishing in immigration detention.
“Whenever people arrive claiming to be refugees, they must be officially classified, fed and sheltered, and assisted in getting safely to where they wish to go,” the paper said.
“Jail is a place for people who commit crimes, not for strangers who ask for help.”
In November 2015, Chongqing-based activists Dong Guangping and Jiang Yefei were handed back to Chinese authorities in a move that drew strong criticism from the U.N., which had already classified them as genuine political refugees.
They are now in criminal detention in Chongqing, where they face subversion charges, while their families have been resettled in Canada.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.