The UN’s refugee agency and the European Union both condemned the forced deportation of Uighurs to China on Saturday, as police began looking for two who escaped custody.
Twenty of the Muslim Uighurs, who had reportedly fled their native Chinese province of Xinjiang following violent rioting in July, were turned back in a surprise decision by the Cambodian government ahead of the visit of a senior Chinese official.
The UNHCR had not had a time to assess their requests for asylum, prompting an outcry from the US, local rights groups and others. The group of 20 was missing two of the original asylum seekers, whom police are now searching for, officials said Tuesday.
Throughout last week, Cambodian officials said they were cooperating with UNHCR to determine the status of the asylum seekers.
Christophe Peschoux, Cambodia representative for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement he was “dismayed” at the turnaround.
Cambodia belongs to the international conventions against torture and on civil and political rights, which bars the return of people who may face threats in their home countries. The credibility of Cambodia’s refugee system “is now seriously questioned,” Peschoux said.
“Critical to this process is the willingness of the Cambodian government to honor its own commitment to refugee protection, to respect the cardinal principle of non-refoulement, and withstand outside pressure from more powerful countries,” he said. “With the plane of shame that took off Saturday night, it is our freedom from want and fear that has become narrower in this part of the world.”
A statement from the Presidency of the European Union said the deportation showed a “worrying disregard” by Cambodia for its international obligations. The EU statement urged the government to review its procedures for asylum seekers and for the government of China to respect the rights of the group.
Chinese Embassy officials could not be reached for comment.
Chinese officials have said the group is wanted for crimes related to anti-Chinese rioting in July. The deportation came on the eve of a visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jingping, who wrapped up three days of talks Tuesday.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Cambodia had applied its own laws to the Uighurs. “Cambodian law obliges this application,” he said Tuesday. “We did not receive any pressure from any sovereign country.”