PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A group of Muslims who fled China after deadly ethnic rioting and sought asylum in Cambodia will be deported.
The group of 22 ethnic Uighurs — who fled China with the help of a secret network of missionaries and arrived in Phnom Penh in recent weeks — was being expelled because it was determined they entered the country illegally, Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said. Two Uighurs have gone missing, he said.
Cambodian Interior Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak said the group would be expelled within a week and could be returned to China.
“I can’t say where they will be sent, but I assume their final destination will be China, the place where they come from,” he said.
The deportations follow intense pressure from China, which has called the Uighurs criminals. The move comes as Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visits Cambodia on Sunday as part of a four-country tour.
Some countries have refused to send Uighurs — such as ones released from U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba — back to China over concerns about retribution and abuse.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had been evaluating the Uighurs, including two children, for possible refugee status.
Kitty McKinsey, a UNHCR spokeswoman at the agency’s office in Bangkok, said refugee status for the Uighurs had not been assessed yet.
“Last night UNHCR conveyed a message to the Cambodian government asking them to refrain from deporting them and offering our assistance to the Cambodian government to deal with the cases,” she said.
The United States has urged Cambodia not to send the Uighurs back to China.
“We are deeply disturbed by the reports that the Cambodian government might forcibly return this group of Uighurs without the benefit of a credible refugee status determination process,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman John Johnson in Phnom Penh. “We strongly urge the Cambodian government to honor its commitment under international law.”
Ethnic rioting in July between Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese was China’s worst communal violence in decades. The Chinese government says nearly 200 people, mostly Han, died.
Overseas Uighur groups say Uighurs have been rounded up in mass detentions since the violence. China has handed down at least 17 death sentences over the rioting.