BEIJING — Two groups totaling at least 189 migrants believed to be ethnic Uighurs fleeing China have been detained in recent days by the authorities in Thailand, Human Rights Watch said Monday. The detention of the two groups brings to 409 the number of people thought to be Uighurs who have been stopped by Thai officials this month.
One group of 112 was detained in Sa Kaeo Province near the Thai-Cambodian border and was taken to an immigration detention center in Bangkok, researchers at Human Rights Watch said. The rights group said a senior Thai immigration official had cited Chinese officials with access to the group as having identified at least 30 as Uighurs.
The second group, which numbers 77, was detained recently in Songkhla Province in southern Thailand. It is unclear what their situation is, said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
On March 12, Thai police officers raided a trafficking camp at a rubber plantation in Songkhla and found about 220 people there who identified themselves as Turks. The Thai police have said they suspect the migrants are Uighurs who were trying to cross to Malaysia. Turkish officials say they have talked with the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group living in the Xinjiang region of China. Chinese officials have also been trying to visit them.
Violence between Uighurs and ethnic Han, the majority ethnic group in China, is on the rise, and many Uighurs say they face discrimination and repression in the desert oasis towns in Xinjiang where they live.
Human Rights Watch and other advocacy organizations are urging the Thai government not to deport the Uighurs to China, saying they face harassment and torture if sent back. Cambodia and Malaysia have both deported Uighurs back to China in recent years.
Asked about the migrants in Thailand, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said at a news conference on Monday in Beijing that the Chinese government was working with the Thai authorities to determine their identities. He declined to comment further.
Thai news organizations have reported that 15 Uighurs were detained Sunday morning in Sa Kaeo Province. It is unclear whether this group is separate from the one of 112 mentioned by Human Rights Watch. Ten of the 15 detained on Sunday are children, the reports said.
The Uighurs had traveled from Vietnam to Cambodia to Thailand and were en route to Malaysia, from which they planned to get to Turkey somehow, according to the news reports. Malaysia is a center of human trafficking, and people regularly fly to other countries from Malaysia using stolen passports. Two Iranian men on the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were trying to get to Europe in this manner.
Recent events in China have made Han there more wary of Uighurs. In early March, people armed with long knives killed at least 29 people and wounded almost 150 at a train station in Kunming, in southwest China. The Chinese state news media did not identify the eight suspects as Uighurs, but said that they were believed to be from Xinjiang. Reports said the attackers were terrorists but did not explain the political motivations or background of the group.
After that attack, the governor of Xinjiang said at a news conference in Beijing during a meeting of the National People’s Congress that the authorities would crack down on separatists in the region. He added that the separatists were working with foreign forces, though he did not identify those parties. China often blames domestic ethnic unrest on exile groups. Its most frequent Uighur target in this regard is Rebiya Kadeer, a critic of the Chinese Communist Party who lives in the Washington, D.C., area.