Claims UN ignored Uighur deportation warnings
By Conor Duffy – exclusive
Updated 11 hours 39 minutes ago
The 20 Uighurs were taken to this safe house on December 17, 2009. Two days later they were deported at gunpoint to China. (ABC News)
There are claims the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) ignored repeated warnings about the imminent forced deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers from Cambodia to China last year.
The Cambodian government was condemned around the world when it deported the asylum seekers at gunpoint in December.
Two Australian women – joint Nobel Peace Prize winner Sister Denise Coghlan and Taya Hunt, a legal officer with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) – represented the Uighurs for six months prior to their deportation.
The pair have spoken exclusively to AM.
Ms Hunt provided legal and humanitarian support to the Uighurs and is one of the few people to have close contact with them.
“[They were] very grateful for the assistance we were providing them and generally just a nice, calm group of people,” she said.
“There was a pregnant woman in the group and her beautiful two children.”
Ms Hunt says the first Uighur arrived in Cambodia in June and the rest in October.
She says the Uighurs began to feel unsafe and concerned they would be returned to China.
Under arrangements in Cambodia at the time, refugee status determinations were handled jointly by the UNHCR and the Cambodian government.
Ms Hunt says repeated warnings were given to the UNHCR that the Uighurs felt uneasy about their applications being processed by Cambodia.
“We were becoming increasingly concerned, as the Uighurs themselves were becoming increasingly concerned, and expressed that concern on almost a daily basis to the UNHCR,” she said.
AM has information that the JRS communicated at least five warnings to the UNHCR.
An excerpt of a letter sent to the UNHCR from JRS on December 10 reads: “JRS’s principal concern is that one or more of these applicants may be forcibly removed from Cambodia to China with an outstanding application for refugee status.
“Informing this concern is, firstly, the fact that Cambodia has historically provided uneven protection for registered asylum seekers; secondly, incidents this year which indicate that the Cambodian Government Refugee Office may not be able to objectively consider cases from China; and thirdly, Chinese-Cambodian political relations.”
Ms Hunt says the warnings were ignored, and on December 17 the Uighur asylum seekers were moved to a jointly run UNHCR/Cambodian government safe house.
On December 19 the asylum seekers were moved at gunpoint, and a day later they were flown to China.
Ms Hunt says the JRS advised the UNHCR against moving the men to the safe house.
“Given that the vice-president was scheduled to visit Cambodia the weekend of the deportation or the weekend they were moved to the safe house, I think given the context and also that we had been advising the UN that the Uighurs felt unsafe, that they felt they were being watched, it was a serious error of judgment on the part of UNHCR,” she said.
‘Lambs to slaughter’
Sister Coghlan, who heads the JRS in Cambodia, says she was also against the move to the safe house.
“Because both the UNHCR and the government had told the people it was a safe house or had guaranteed it would be safe for them, it was like leading lambs to the slaughter,” she said.
UNHCR spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey says the refugee agency believed the Cambodian government was acting in good faith.
“We were doing everything we could to support Cambodia,” she said.
“But the essence is that it’s the responsibility of states to provide protection, and we don’t start with an assumption that countries can’t fairly handle cases from one country or another.”
Ms McKinsey declined to comment on whether the warnings from the JRS were taken seriously.
“It was Cambodia’s responsibility to protect these people, but during this transitional phase we were working with Cambodia to help them and the point is that Cambodia did not complete the process,” she said.
Ms Hunt, though, is also critical of the time it took for the asylum seekers to have their claims processed.
“We submitted in October that the applicant was at risk and accordingly that the UNHCR should hand down a decision on his case as quickly as possible,” she said.
“It is very, very unfortunate that the UNHCR delayed handing down a decision on his case.”
Ms McKinsey is adamant the blame for the deportations lies with Cambodia.
She says Cambodia had been gradually taking control of asylum applications and took full control two days before the deportations.
“We tried very hard to stop the deportation to China because we knew the dangers they could face,” she said.
“We even had staff at Phnom Penh airport to physically try and stop the deportation, but unfortunately they left through the military airport which we didn’t have access to.”
Sister Coghlan believes there should be a thorough review of the way the claims were handled.
“These people were taken at gunpoint from the safe house and taken to a place belonging to the ministry of interior,” she said.
“The next night they were deported to China on a VIP jet. One would have to say the joint processing of the Uighur cases was a complete catastrophe and a tragedy.”
Cambodia now has complete responsibility for processing asylum claims and the JRS believes asylum seekers arriving from countries such as Burma, which has friendly ties with Cambodia, are also at risk.
The Member for Melbourne Ports Michael Danby has criticised the decision of the Cambodian Government to extradite the Uighurs to China.
The decision has been criticised by MPs and senators in Canada and Italy.
Mr Danby says the decision shows a disgraceful disregard for the welfare of the 20 Uighurs.
“The extradition of 20 Uighurs to China, which will likely end with their execution, is anything but humane,’ Mr Danby said.
“The political, cultural and social suffering of the Uighur are further entrenched when countries do nothing to protect their human rights. I condemn this abhorrent decision.”
Tags: world-politics, unrest-conflict-and-war, refugees, australia, cambodia, china
First posted Fri Feb 26, 2010 8:45am AEDT