Thailand sent back to China more than 100 ethnic Uighur refugees on Thursday, drawing harsh criticism from the U.N. refugee agency and human rights groups over concerns that they face persecution by the Chinese government.
Protesters in Turkey, which accepted an earlier batch of Uighur refugees from Thailand, ransacked the Thai Consulate in Istanbul overnight. Police in the capital, Ankara, used pepper spray to push back a group of Uighur protesters who tried to break through a barricade outside the Chinese Embassy.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry condemned Thailand, saying the deportation violated international humanitarian laws and came despite "numerous initiatives" by Turkey to prevent their repatriation. It said Turkey will continue to monitor their fate.
Thai deputy government spokesman Maj. Gen. Verachon Sukhonthapatipak said Thailand had assurances from Chinese authorities about the safety of 109 Uighurs. However, in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China would take action against those suspected of breaking the law.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said that as a third country, the matter was not Thailand's problem, and that the place they were sent to — he did not name China — would take care of it according to its justice system.
"I'm asking if we don't do it this way, then how would we do it?" he said. "Or do you want us to keep them for ages until they have children for three generations?"
The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it was "shocked" and considered Thailand's action "a flagrant violation of international law."
The Uighur group had been in Thailand for over a year, along with others who had fled China and claimed to be Turkish, Verachon said. Thai authorities sought to verify their nationalities before relocating them, he said.
"We found that about 170 of them were Turkish, so they were recently sent to Turkey," he said. "And about 100 were Chinese, so they were sent to China as of this morning, under the agreement that their safety is guaranteed according to humanitarian principles." He denied reports from Uighur activists that the refugees resisted deportation and some had been hurt.
Two witnesses who saw the Uighurs being led into trucks to be driven to Bangkok's military airport said the men were handcuffed and some of women were crying and shouted, "Help us! Don't allow them to send us back to China."
Bilal Degirmenci and a colleague from the Turkish humanitarian group Cansuyu said they were forced by police to delete photos and video they had taken of the Uighurs, and were threatened with punishment if any were published or posted on the Internet.
The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China's far western Xinjiang region. The group has complained of cultural and religious suppression as well as economic marginalization under Chinese rule.
The U.N. agency said it repeatedly brought up the matter of the Uighur refugees with the Thai government, and "in response, the agency was given assurances that the matter would be handled in accordance with international legal standards, and that the group would continue to receive protection."
Such deportations violate the right to protection against return to a country where a person has reason to fear persecution, said Volker Turk, UNHCR's assistant high commissioner for protection, said in a statement.
China's position is that the Uighurs left the country illegally. Beijing has accused Uighur separatists of terrorism in Xinjiang, where ethnic violence has left hundreds of people dead over the past two years.
"China's relevant departments will bring those who are suspected of committing serious crimes to justice according to law," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua told reporters. "As for those who are not suspected of committing crimes or who commit lesser offences, we will find proper ways to deal with them."
In Turkey, which has cultural ties to the Uighurs and agreed to take in the other 170 refugees despite China's objections, mostly Uighur protesters vandalized the Thai Consulate in Istanbul. The office was closed on Thursday.
Police allowed about 100 protesters to pray outside the consulate before taking nine of them away for questioning.
The Thai Embassy issued a statement urging its nationals in Turkey to be on alert.
The World Uyghur Congress, a German-based advocacy group, said those repatriated could face criminal charges and harsh punishment, possibly execution, under China's opaque legal system — the reasons they fled China in the first place.
"The extradition is a dirty political deal between the Thai and Chinese authorities," spokesman Dilxat Raxit said in a statement.