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Uighurs failed by Cambodia's sham refugee law

  • 03 March 2010

In June last year a solitary Uighur from Xinjiang Province in China arrived in Phnom Penh seeking asylum. He registered his claim with the Cambodian Government and with UNHCR.

Like East Timor, Cambodia became a signatory to all major UN human rights instruments when in receipt of considerable UN assistance. They, with the Philippines, are the only three of Australia's South East Asian neighbours to have acceded to the UN Convention on Refugees. The Cambodian government has been very slow in setting up its own procedures for refugee determinations, being dependent on UNHCR to provide the service.

UNHCR had been working for many years with the Cambodian authorities to come up with a workable refugee law. UNHCR did not invite input from other refugee or human rights organisations and refused any civil society scrutiny of the proposed law. During the interim refugee status determination process, independent legal representation as requested by asylum seekers was neither permitted nor encouraged.

Having been interviewed four times to determine refugee status, the solitary Uighur had a strong claim backed by documentary evidence. He was worried after one meeting with the head of the Cambodian government's unit responsible for refugee processing who told him that China was a good place which respected its people.

Meanwhile, things turned sour back in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province between 5 and 7 July 2009. Tensions between Uighurs and newly arrived Han Chinese erupted in violence in the factories and on the streets. More than 700 persons were arrested and about 200 persons were killed.

By October, participants in the street violence were prosecuted in courts constituted by 'politically reliable' judges and described in a resolution to the US Congress as being 'without the benefits of any due process, public observers, or court procedures in violation of international legal standards'.

A further 21 Uighurs, including a pregnant mother and her two infant children, then fled overland through Vietnam and into Cambodia. They were cared for by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) which provided them with legal representation and humanitarian assistance. UNHCR provided them with letters stating that they were persons of concern to UNHCR and under the protection of the UNHCR office.

The plight of the Uighurs in Phnom Penh became international news once the Washington Post carried a story about them on 3 November 2009. Radio Free Asia even published