BEIJING (AP) — China on Tuesday said the United Nations’ refugee program “should not be a haven for criminals,” adding that the 22 Muslim Uighurs who have fled the country and applied for asylum at a U.N. office in Cambodia have been involved in crimes.
A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told a press conference that China is investigating the case of the Uighurs, who fled after ethnic rioting this summer. They arrived in Cambodia in recent weeks after being smuggled out of China with the help of a secret network of missionaries and Chinese Christians.
“These people are involved in crimes,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
The ethnic rioting in July between Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese was China’s worst communal violence in decades. The Chinese government says the violence left nearly 200 people, mostly Han, dead.
At least one leader of a Uighur exile group has said it is not clear what role the 22 Uighurs had in the rioting. Another leader has said the Uighurs fear they will be returned to China by Cambodia, which has close ties with China.
The Uighurs have applied for asylum at the U.N. refugee office in Phnom Penh. So far, they have not agreed to be interviewed.
Jiang said the U.N. refugee program “should not be a haven for criminals.”
Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at its Asian regional office in Bangkok, said the agency’s policy is not to discuss individual cases. She described its mission as “to protect any people in the world who cannot receive protection from their own government.”
“Sometimes the UNHCR and the government have a dispute over the kind of people in need of protection,” she said.
Ilshat Hassan, the U.S.-based director of interior affairs for the World Uyghur Congress, has said the group of 22 Uighurs is the first large one to leave China after the riots.
Earlier this month, Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the country has the right to deny a deportation request if the people involved are political asylum seekers, but “if they are purely criminal people and there is a request, we may deport them.”
As of this month, China has handed down at least 17 death sentences over the July rioting.
Overseas Uighur groups say Uighurs have been rounded up in mass detentions since the violence, which flared up after long-simmering tensions between the ethnic groups.