Phnom Penh | An Unsafe House

Did Beijing’s economic assistance to Cambodia influence Phnom Penh’s deportation of 20 political refugees?

Hun Sen accepts Chinese funding for a 128 million dollar bridge, a day after 20 Uyghurs were deported to China. REUTERS/CHOR SOKUNTHEA
01 March, 2010

SISTER DENISE COUGHLAN STILL REFERS to it as the “house of betrayal.” Situated on the dusty outskirts of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, the UN safehouse was home for two nights to 20 ethnic Uyghur asylum seekers from China’s troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, who had entered the country at different times over the previous few weeks. On the evening of the third day in that particular safehouse, Cambodian police rounded them up at gunpoint, drove them to the National Police Headquarters and the following night, 19 December, forced them onto an unmarked charter flight to China. Despite their strident protests, human rights groups and officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were powerless to intervene.

How the Uyghurs—22 in all—negotiated the arduous overland journey from China to Cambodia bears repeating. Fleeing the ethnic violence that rocked Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, last July, the group—including three children—were smuggled through China, Vietnam and into Cambodia by underground Christian missionary networks. At the time of their deportation, the group was awaiting the results of asylum applications filed through the UNHCR office in Phnom Penh. Two members of the group managed to escape before the deportation. They are still on the run.

Coughlan, the director of Jesuit Refugee Services, which aided the Uyghurs in their asylum bid, said she was “shocked” at the Cambodian government’s actions. “Like sheep going to the slaughter, the people went to the safehouse clearly believing they were going to be protected,” she said. They weren’t.

Cambodian officials say the Uyghurs were deported because they breached “immigration laws,” but such statements belie the new power relationships radiating from Beijing, outwards into its Southeast Asian backyard. The morning after the Uyghurs’ deportation, Chinese Vice-President, Xi Jinping, touched down at Siem Reap International Airport, close to the famed temples of Angkor. In his briefcase: economic aid agreements worth an unprecedented 1.2 billion dollars. They were signed by grateful Cambodian officials the following day.

In recent years, China’s global sales pitch—hefty amounts of economic aid unconstrained by human rights or good governance demands—has found a willing recipient in Phnom Penh. “China respects the political decisions of Cambodia,” said Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, as he cut a ribbon marking the construction of a 128-million-dollar Chinese-funded bridge in September. “They build bridges and roads and there are no complicated conditions.”

The newly promised 1.2 billion dollars in economic assistance comes on top of the 880 million dollars in loans and grants that Cambodia has received from Beijing since 2006, including the monolithic concrete edifice—a Chinese ‘gift’ worth 33 million dollars—that houses the Cambodian Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh.

According to activists, the Uyghurs were wanted by Chinese authorities for witnessing the violent clashes in July between protestors and Chinese security police in Urumqi. In written statements to the UNHCR, several of the Uyghurs told the agency they feared lengthy imprisonment or even the death penalty if they were returned to China.

One man, a 29-year-old from Kashgar, said that he had taken photos and videos of the 5 July events as Chinese military police shot at protesters and many Uyghurs fought back with rocks. “I felt like I was in a battlefield. Looking down at the streets full of Uyghur bodies, I thought that I was going to die,” he said in his statement, which was published by the Associated Press last month. “If I am returned to China, I am sure that I will be sentenced to life imprisonment or the death penalty for my involvement in the Urumqi riots.”

A second man, a 27-year-old teacher from the city of Aksu, said that before last year’s riots he had been press-ganged into acting as a state informant in order to detect anti-Chinese sentiment amongst his students. He spent more than a year being tortured and beaten in a reeducation camp, the statement added.

Dolkun Isa, secretary general of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), said the Chinese efforts to repatriate the refugees from Cambodia were part of an attempt to keep a lid on its policies inside Xinjiang Province. “China is afraid that if [these] people go to another country, the international community will know about China’s policy towards the Uyghur people,” he said. “China is afraid that if these people will talk about what they saw [during the unrest].”

While the 20 asylum seekers have returned to a grim and uncertain fate at the mercy of Chinese authorities, the Cambodian government has been forced into damage control. Just over a year ago, the country was drawing UNHCR’s praises for its work on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers. As one of only two nations in Southeast Asia to have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, the agency hailed the opening of a new refugee office in Phnom Penh in October 2008, describing the country as a potential “refugee model” for the region. A new sub-decree handing complete control for asylum cases over to the government was signed on 17 December—just two days before the Uyghurs were flown out of the country.

The deportation has angered some rights activists. Sara Colm, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said it was “astonishingly poor timing and a gross error in judgment” for UNHCR to hand control of refugee processing to the Cambodian government. “The bottom line is that Cambodia flagrantly violated its obligations under the Refugee Convention, which ended tragically for the 20 Uyghurs,” she said.

Following the deportation, Cambodian officials derided UNHCR officials for sluggishly processing the asylum applications.

“UNHCR is the laziest office in Cambodia,” said government spokesman, Khieu Kanharith, on 21 December. “If they [granted refugee status] within a few days, those people would have been moved to other places, but they were slow and kept them for about a month.” He also accused the agency of leaking the story to the press in order to “beat a drum” against the government, forcing it to begin investigations into the whereabouts of the 22 asylum seekers.

Kitty McKinsey, UNCHR’s spokesperson in Asia, said the agency tried to stop the deportation, but the responsibility ultimately lies with Cambodia. “We work very diligently and sincerely to assist the government and provide protection, but if a state has signed the Refugee Convention, it’s up to the state itself to provide protection,” she said.