BANGKOK (AFP) – More than 100 migrants thought to be from China’s Uighur minority have escaped from shelters in Thailand, with authorities fearing they have fallen into the hands of a human trafficking ring, an official said Wednesday.
Thailand has held dozens of the migrants since March, when they were discovered during a raid on a suspected people-smuggling camp in the kingdom’s deep south and sentenced for illegal entry.
Police had said they were waiting to identify the nationalities of the group before deciding their fate.
The migrants claimed they were Turkish, but US-based Uighur activists identified them as Uighurs – a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim group from China’s northwestern Xinjiang region.
The latest annual US human rights report said that China carries out “severe official repression” of Uighurs in Xinjiang, with the Thai raid in March prompting the US State Department to urge Thailand to offer the group protection.
“Only 40 of around 160 women and children remain at the two shelters. They ran away together at night between November 1 and 5,” Jaras Chumpan, chief of the social development and human security office in southern Songkhla province, told AFP by telephone.
“I am concerned that they might have been trafficked,” he added. “They want to go to Turkey – they do not want to go back to China.”
Thailand has long been a hub for people-trafficking, with thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim minority group from neighbouring Myanmar, believed to have passed through the kingdom in recent years.
Songkhla immigration police chief Thatchai Pitaneelaboot confirmed authorities were searching for the missing women and children, adding that police were still trying to determine their nationalities.
“We still don’t know their identities – we are waiting for their identity proofs,” said Thatchai, adding police thought they were from China or Turkey.
In March a southern Thai court fined around 120 adults $124 each for illegal entry, holding the men in detention centres and the women and children in shelters.
“The men have been detained in detention centres across the country,” said Thatchai, adding that more than 300 men, women and children were discovered in the March raid – raising a previous estimate of roughly 200 people.
Under pressure from Beijing, countries including Cambodia, Malaysia and Pakistan have all in recent years forcibly returned Uighurs to China. Thailand has a generally cordial relationship with China.