BEIJING (AP) — More than 200 refugees detained in Thailand earlier this year are believed to be Chinese Uighurs and should be repatriated, a Chinese consul said, dismissing concerns they will be mistreated.
The refugees' claim to be Turkish cannot be confirmed and they refuse to cooperate with Chinese authorities on proper identification, said Qin Jian, the consul in Songkhla.
"They have been uncooperative and refused to communicate at all," Qin said.
The refuges are likely fearful of being mistreated in China if they are returned, although Qin said such concerns are unwarranted.
"If they do not have criminal records back in China, there will be no prosecution," the consul said.
Tensions between minority Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese have left about 400 people dead in the past 20 months. Beijing has blamed the violence on terrorism, separatism and extreme religion and has harshly cracked down in the Uighurs' far northwestern home region. But human rights groups say the heavy-handedness is further alienating the Uighurs.
In March, Thai immigration officers rescued 220 men, women and children held by presumed human traffickers at a remote camp. Qin said there has been no confirmation of their Turkish identity after staff from the Turkish embassy met with the group.
Dozens of men have been identified as Chinese Uighurs and the others in the group are believed to be based on their physical features, habits and customs, Qin said. He declined to elaborate.
The Washington-based Uyghur American Association has called upon the Thai government not to return them to China but allow them access to the United Nations' refugee agency for asylum requests.
"Uyghurs have been forcibly returned into the hands of their persecutors in the past with dire results," said Alim Seytoff, president of the association in a statement.
Seytoff said China's economic and political leverage with other governments leaves genuine refugees unprotected and that the increasing numbers of Uighur refugees is an indication of Beijing's repression of the Muslim minority.
Thai officials have said their investigation is not yet complete.