ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Thailand sent eight more ethnic Muslim Uighur refugees to Turkey, officials said Saturday, days after the Thai government faced intense international criticism for deporting 109 refugees back to China despite fears they could face persecution there.
The eight — four women and four children — arrived in Istanbul early on Saturday, the Turkish aid organization Cansuyu said. Their arrival raises the number of Uighurs Turkey has taken in from Thailand to 181.
Thailand had earlier sent a group of 173 refugees to Turkey, saying they had Turkish documents. It repatriated 109 others to China, sparking condemnation from Turkey, which has cultural ties to the Uighurs, and a barrage of international criticism.
Maj. Gen. Verachon Sukhonthapatipak, the deputy spokesman for the Thai government, told The Associated Press on Saturday that the eight were sent because they had documents showing they were Turkish.
"According to their documents, these eight people have been verified as Turkish. The Chinese authorities weren't able to prove otherwise," he said.
Verachon said 52 remaining Uighurs would be sent back to their country once their nationalities were verified.
On Saturday, the European Union joined the chorus of criticism and said Thailand should allow the remaining refugees "to depart voluntarily to a country of their choice that is willing to receive them."
The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China's far western Xinjiang region. The group has complained of harsh cultural and religious suppression as well as economic marginalization under Chinese rule.
China says the Uighurs left the country illegally. Beijing has accused Uighur separatists of terrorism in Xinjiang, where ethnic violence has left hundreds of people dead over the past two years.
A Chinese state-run newspaper on Friday accused the Turkish government — without naming it directly — of abetting illegal migration by issuing documents to Uighurs.
Grant Peck and Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok contributed to this report.