In the past weeks, two groups of refugees and asylum seekers in the Asia Pacific region have been refouled - that is involuntarily returned to their country of origin where they may face severe human rights abuse. In direct contravention of international law, Thailand deported Hmong refugees back to Laos, and Cambodia deported Uighur refugees back to China.

In the past weeks, two groups of refugees and asylum seekers in the Asia Pacific region have been refouled - that is involuntarily returned to their country of origin where they may face severe human rights abuse. In direct contravention of international law, Thailand deported Hmong refugees back to Laos, and Cambodia deported Uighur refugees back to China.

The international principle of non-refoulement was created soon after World War Two, by a world full of remorse for the fate of Jewish asylum seekers who were denied protection. Since then, it has been illegal to return someone to a country where they face a probable risk of persecution.

And yet, this is exactly what has been happening in the Asia Pacific. There can be little doubt that both the Laos Hmong and the Uighurs will be targeted and persecuted by authorities or other unfriendly groups. They could be arbitrarily detained, tortured, subjected to enforced disappearance, or even killed.

Uighurs: From Cambodia back to China

On 18 December 2009, 20 Uighur asylum seekers were deported to China from Cambodia, at the request of the Chinese authorities. The Uighurs were fleeing violence and increased persecution in China following the unrest that began on 5 July 2009, when police and security forces reacted brutally to peaceful Uighur demonstrators. The ensuing violent ethnic clashes resulted in at least 197 deaths, and Chinese state media has reported that 8 people have been sentenced to death for their involvement in the riots, and another 9 have already been executed.

Just days before he was refouled, a 27-year-old Uighur man told reporters, “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.”

The Cambodian Government justified their actions by claiming that the group were merely illegal migrants, but the Uighurs weren’t even given the chance to have their claims for asylum assessed by the UN’s refugee agency. Instead, it seems more likely that the group were genuine refugees and the motivation for their return had something to do with the $USD 1 billion deal signed with China immediately following the deportation.

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Hmong: From Thailand back to Laos

10 days later, the Thai Government, emboldened perhaps by Cambodia’s actions, began the forced repatriation of about 4,500 Hmong refugees to Laos. This has happened before, albeit on a smaller scale, and Amnesty International has reported numerous cases of arbitrary detention, torture, physical and sexual assault and disappearance of refouled Hmong in Laos.

Included in this latest group of returned Hmong, were 158 recognised refugees who had already received offers of resettlement from Australia, the US, Canada and the Netherlands. The Thai and Lao governments had given assurances that the third country resettlement could take place once the refugees had transited through Laos. However on 10 January, a Lao government spokesperson told journalists that "all of the Hmong decided to live in their homeland forever," and no longer wanted to resettle abroad.

This seems unlikely. Hmong have faced severe persecution by the Laos government since the 1960s and 70s when they assisted the US military against the communist regime. The UN has no formal presence in Laos and has not been given access to the group since their return to Laos. The international community doesn’t even know where the group are, much less how they are being treated.

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Rohingya: From Bangladesh back to Burma??

Even more recently, the Bangladesh Government has been threatening to send 9,000 Rohingya back to Burma. The Bangladesh Government announced that the military junta who control Burma have agreed to accept a portion of the 28,000 Rohingya currently stranded in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh.

The Bangladeshi authorities claim that this group are merely ‘economic migrants’. However, it is well documented that the Rohingya are subjected to forced labour, severe discrimination and arbitrary detention in Burma. Even worse, the junta do not actually recognise the group as citizens, making Rohingya effectively stateless in a country where they have lived for generations.

It remains unclear whether the Burmese junta have in fact offered to take back 9,000 Rohingya. It is also uncertain whether the group will be returning voluntarily or forcibly deported...but Rohingya continue to flee Burma by the thousands so it seems unlikely that any would willingly return.

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Refoulement: A rising trend in the Asia Pacific?

There are serious and compelling reasons why Uighurs flee China, Hmong flee Laos, and Rohingya flee Burma. It is crucial that all countries allow the UN access to any person that is seeking protection, and that these countries are not punished by their neighbours for respecting non-refoulement.

By working together to ignore international law, and reject the role of the UN, these Asian Pacific Governments have set a very dangerous trend that signifies a step in the wrong direction for human rights in the region. ASEAN's Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights, established only last year, needs to denounce the actions of its member governments and call on them to allow the UN access to the returned groups.

Amnesty International is all for regional cooperation. Population movements through the Asia Pacific are increasing and government’s need to work together to come up with durable, long term solutions. But it is imperative that any multilateral agreement prioritises human rights and respects international law.

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