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.