Illegal Uighur Immigration in Southeast Asia

By Kendrick Kuo & Kyle Springer

Uighurs on the move in Xinjiang, China. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

Uighurs visit a market in Xinjiang, China. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

The movement of the Uighur population from their home province of Xinjiang in western China to Central Asia has long been a problem for Beijing. Strict security policies in Xinjiang motivate Uighurs to resettle outside of China. However, forced repatriation of Uighurs in Central Asia back to China is common. Larger groups of Uighurs are now moving south to countries like Thailand and Malaysia, exploiting their porous borders.

In March 2014, Thai authorities detained 424 illegal Muslim immigrants who initially claimed to be Turkish, but are now known to be Uighurs. The refugees were found in different parts of Thailand—in Sadao District, Songkhla Province bordering Malaysia, and Sa Kaeo Province bordering Cambodia. Around the same time, Malaysian border control authorities arrested 62 Uighurs trying to enter Malaysia illegally from Thailand. Thai authorities believe these detainees are representative of a broader trend of Uighurs traveling through Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia to reach southern Thailand. From Thailand, they are allegedly smuggled into Malaysia in order to obtain false passports that allow them to journey to Turkey, which hosts a large Uighur diaspora, or other friendly countries.

Chinese authorities have officially requested that the Uighurs in Thailand be repatriated, citing concerns that they have ties with terrorist networks, are en route to participate in Syria’s civil war, or are seeking military training in Turkey. Human rights organizations and Uighur diaspora associations dispute this narrative and cite the large number of women and children among the refugees as evidence that political asylum is their true motivation. At this point, it is unclear whether Thai authorities will deport the recently detained groups. Thai officials themselves appear divided over whether the Uighurs are emigrating for asylum or terrorist training.

Authorities in Xinjiang restrict Uighurs’ traditional Islamic practices due to fear of transnational jihadist influences. And despite affirmative action and other redistributive government policies, Uighurs remain disproportionately poor. The impetus for them to leave China will only rise as Beijing pursues harsher security measures in Xinjiang following a March 1 attack on civilians at a train station in southern China’s Kunming. The Chinese government reported that the attack was an act of jihad by Uighurs originally intending to escape to Southeast Asia to engage in terrorism elsewhere.

In the aftermath of the Kunming attack, the Xinjiang government stated its intention to draft an anti-terror law. Authorities in Yunnan Province, where Kunming is located, deported Uighurs back to Xinjiang. The Xinjiang Communist Party chief has also announced that future security work in the region will be conducted under the auspices of the National Security Commission, further centralizing and streamlining crackdowns in Xinjiang. If Uighurs successfully relocate, Beijing fears that they may foment violent rebellion in China or bring international attention to human rights violations in Xinjiang.

China will have to pursue nuanced policies among Southeast Asian nations, who will not automatically cooperate with repatriation requests. Pressure from Beijing will not be as effective in influencing governments in Southeast Asia to deport Uighurs as it has been in Central Asia. Thailand, for instance, must deal with criticisms from domestic human rights groups, international bodies, and its treaty ally, the United States. On the other hand, Thailand faces an enormous volume of refugees, including Cham, Rohingya, and Uighurs, from neighboring countries, and it could use China’s help.

Much like Thailand, other Southeast Asian countries have struggled with competing interests when dealing with Uighurs. In December 2012, Malaysia repatriated six Uighur men who were caught trying to leave the country using false passports. While in detention in Kuala Lumpur, the men registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, but Malaysia deported them while they awaited their status review. China’s influence outweighed pressure to demonstrate Malaysia’s commitment to human rights and solidarity with its Muslim co-religionists.

Other Southeast Asian countries have also complied with Chinese repatriation requests, often in spite of international refugee law. Most recently, Vietnam repatriated 11 allegedly Uighur migrants on April 21 after they had violently resisted arrest. In March 2010, Laos deported seven Uighurs reportedly fleeing China after the 2009 riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Cambodia repatriated 20 Uighurs in December 2009 while their refugee status was pending evaluation.

Xinjiang’s intensified security policies may trigger greater flows of Uighur migrants to Southeast Asia. As a result, China may attempt to establish a sustained pattern of deportation among Southeast Asian countries, similar to its arrangements with Shanghai Cooperation Organization members in Central Asia. But Southeast Asian nations’ diverse interests and domestic challenges will force Beijing to pursue repatriation on a country-by-country and case-by-case basis.

Mr. Kendrick Kuo is a researcher with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Mr. Kyle Springer is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

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