Betraying asylum seekers for Chinese investment

Xi Jinping (L) toasts with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a signing ceremony at the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh on December 21, 2009. Cambodia forced Uighur asylum seekers back to China, just before a billion-dollar investment package arrived from Beijing.
Tang Chhin Sothy

Editor's note: This article is excerpted from Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio, published by Yale University Press on Nov. 25.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Sister Denise Coughlan called it the “House of Betrayal.” From the outside, there wasn’t much to see. It sat on a quiet street on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, crouching behind tangled foliage and a tall corrugated iron fence. A few years ago this inconspicuous facade concealed a sanctuary, a safe-house used by asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Burma, Vietnam, and parts of Africa. Drawn by Cambodia’s porous borders, hundreds of desperate people had been put up there by refugee aid groups as their applications for political asylum filtered through the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For many of them, the dwelling was a short stop on the way to a better life in the West.

All this changed in late 2009, when the compound briefly housed a group of 22 asylum seekers from China. They were Uighurs, members of a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group from Xinjiang province in the country’s west. They had fled a harsh official crackdown following protests in July that had devolved into one of the worst episodes of ethnic violence in China in decades. Police had detained hundreds of Uighurs for their alleged participation in the rioting. Several Uighurs were sentenced to death in guilty-until-proven- innocent trials. Others were reportedly “disappeared”  by Chinese security forces. After an arduous overland journey across China and down the coastal spine of Vietnam, the Uighurs had trickled over the Cambodian border in small groups throughout October and November. The group, which included a pregnant woman with two small children, was taken in by a number of refugee aid NGOs, including Coughlan’s Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), which gave them food and shelter. The UNHCR office issued letters stating that they were “Persons of Concern” under the agency’s protection. They were told to wait while the government assessed their asylum claims.

The Uighur case might have remained an obscure footnote were it not for the American media coverage which publicized their presence in Cambodia. When the story broke, the Chinese government immediately branded the Uighurs “criminals” and demanded their return. As one of the few Asian countries to have signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, Cambodia was legally obliged to conduct a fair assessment of the Uighurs’ asylum claims and to prevent their “refoulement”—their return to any country where they were likely to face torture or mistreatment. Faced with a choice between Chinese demands and its obligations under the Refugee Convention, Ilshat  Hassan of the World Uighur Congress expressed hope that the Cambodian  government would do the right thing, and show the world it was “a responsible, accountable government” that abided by international law.

Officials at UNHCR were equally optimistic. In mid-2008 the agency had signed an agreement with the government transferring asylum-seeker processing to a new Cambodian Refugee Office under the Ministry of Interior. In a press release marking the agreement, UNHCR hailed Cambodia as a potential “refugee model” for Southeast Asia. All that was necessary for the final handover was the passage of a new refugee subdecree law, then in its final stages of drafting. After years of training and “capacity building,” UNHCR was confident that the Cambodians understood their legal obligations—and would implement them accordingly.

The timing for the Uighurs could hardly have been worse. In mid-December China’s Vice President, Xi Jinping, was due to arrive in Cambodia for a high-profile state visit, carrying a fat portfolio of grants and loan agreements totalling a record
$1.2 billion. The promise of this economic bonanza gave Beijing huge leverage over the Cambodian government. On December 19, the day before Xi’s arrival, the Uighurs were taken to Phnom Penh International Airport at gunpoint and bundled aboard a charter flight to China. Human rights activists and Western diplomats voiced their outrage, but the calculation for the Cambodians was brutally simple: for each asylum seeker that it “refouled,” the government received the equivalent of $60 million.

Just a few days earlier it looked like the government might resist China’s pressure. Government spokesmen confirmed that immigration officials were working with UNHCR to process the Uighurs’ asylum claims. On December 16, in response to concerns from Western embassies and refugee advocates, police rounded up the Uighurs from various locations and took them to a single location, supposedly for their protection. The following day they were installed at the Phnom Penh refugee safe-house, as Interior Minister Sar Kheng assured US officials that the government was “on the road” to resolving their asylum claims.

Then, suddenly, the Cambodian position shifted. On December 17, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed Cambodia’s long-awaited refugee subdecree. The law, pushed through ahead of schedule, contained a last-minute addition—a clause giving the Interior Minister the power to deny, terminate, or remove the protection status granted by UNHCR and send asylum seekers home. On December 18 a ministry spokesman declared that the Uighurs “were not real refugees” but rather “criminals escaping from China and involved with a terrorist organization.”

Police armed with machine guns entered the safe-house compound, and forced the Uighurs to board a bus with curtains drawn over the windows. Those who asked where they were going were answered with kicks and blows. The group was driven to an Interior Ministry detention center where they were held in two small cells, some in handcuffs. Shortly before their departure, Sara Colm, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, had received a text message from one of the Uighurs, a young man named Yusup. “Please help us out,” he wrote, “otherwise we are going to be killed.”

A few hours later Yusup and his compatriots were gone. Most observers were stunned by the speed of the reversal. Denise Coughlan, the Australian nun who headed JRS and was closely involved in the Uighur case, was shocked at how quickly a house of refuge became a house of betrayal. “Like sheep going to the slaughter, the people went to the safe-house clearly believing they were going to be protected,” she told me. “How they can call a pregnant mother with two children in her arms a terrorist is beyond my imagination.”

The next morning, Xi Jinping and his entourage touched down in tourist hub of Siem  Reap and drove into town along a sunny street lined with waving schoolchildren and strings of Chinese flags. Beijing’s president-in-waiting posed for photos at Angkor Wat and then flew to Phnom Penh, where Cambodian soldiers in white uniforms saluted him outside the Sino-modernist building housing the Council of Ministers—a recent $30 million “gift” from Beijing. After inking their seven- figure deal, Xi and Hun Sen toasted the agreement with champagne. The two men clinked glasses, and the news cameras flashed their silver over a new apogee in Sino-Cambodian relations.

Will you support The World today?

The story you just read is available to read for free because thousands of listeners and readers like you generously support our nonprofit newsroom. Every day, the reporters and producers at The World are hard at work bringing you relevant, fact-based and human-centered news from across the globe. But we can’t do it without you: We need your support to ensure we can continue this work for another year. 

Make your gift of $100 or pledge $10 monthly, and we’ll thank you on The World’s podcast in early 2023. And every gift will get us one step closer to our goal.