‘Wholly Negligent’: Uyghur Asylum Seekers Keep Dying in Thailand’s Detention Centers

Rights groups have raised concerns about the conditions Uyghur refugees face in detention, after another Uyghur refugee has died in Thai custody.
Around 50 Uyghur asylum seekers, remain in Thailand's immigration detention centers, where they are known to deal with squalid living conditions and a lack of access to healthcare. Photo: Romeo GACAD / AFP​
About 50 Uyghur asylum seekers remain in Thailand’s immigration detention centers, where they are known to deal with squalid living conditions and a lack of access to healthcare. Photo: Romeo GACAD / AFP

A Uyghur refugee who was detained by Thai authorities in 2014 while fleeing persecution in China died last week after spending nine years in detention, Uyghur rights groups say.

The refugee, 40-year-old Mattohti Mattursun, died on Friday after being taken to hospital due to liver and respiratory problems, according to a Tuesday statement by the World Uyghur Congress and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.


The groups are demanding that the Thai government investigate the living conditions of Uyghur asylum seekers held in the Suan Phlu immigration detention center in Bangkok.

His death comes just two months after the death of 49-year-old Aziz Abdullah, another Uyghur asylum seeker, who died from reported pneumonia in the same detention center. Both men were transferred to the center in July last year, the rights groups said in the statement.

Suan Phlu immigration detention center in Bangkok, where Mattohti Mattursun was held before he died on April 21. Photo: Jack TAYLOR / AFP

Suan Phlu immigration detention center in Bangkok, where Mattohti Mattursun was held before he died on April 21. Photo: Jack TAYLOR / AFP

Mattohti is the fifth Uyghur asylum seeker to die in Thai detention over the past nine years. In 2018, a 27-year-old man died of cancer at a Thai immigration detention facility after being detained there for four years. Another two Uyghur children died in 2014, according to media reports, including a three-year-old boy suffering from tuberculosis.

“This tragic death of yet another Uyghur being held in indefinite immigration detention in Bangkok shows the danger of the cramped and outrageously unhygienic conditions these men have faced for almost ten years,” Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy director, told VICE World News. 


“Thailand’s desire for this ‘problematic’ group of Uyghur detainees to go away apparently also includes letting them get sick and die. How else to explain this wholly negligent, completely inhumane treatment that denies them even basic health care,” Robertson said.

The Chinese government has drastically tightened its control over the country’s Uyghur population since 2014, after Uyghur militants killed 31 in a mass stabbing attack at a train station in southwestern China. Vowing to fight terrorism, Beijing has turned the far-western Chinese region of Xinjiang, where most Uyghurs live, into what rights groups have described as a “dystopian hellscape” and severely curtailed the ethnic and religious identity of Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnic group.

As many as a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims in China have been detained in internment camps since 2017, in a series of abuses that the United Nations said could amount to crimes against humanity


Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have specific asylum legislation. Consequently, refugees and asylum seekers, including those fleeing persecution in Xinjiang, are routinely arrested and treated as criminals.

At least 350 Uyghur men, women, and children fleeing China have been arrested upon entering Thailand since 2013. In 2015, 172 of the women and children were resettled in Turkey. But a few weeks later, Thai authorities deported 109 of the group back to China. At the time, international rights groups and the United Nations expressed fear that they would be imprisoned or tortured upon their return. Meanwhile, 20 detainees broke out of a detention center in 2017 by using blankets to scale the wall.

About 50 Uyghur asylum seekers, including Mattohti, remain in Thai immigration detention—held almost completely without contact and access to lawyers or international aid organizations. The World Uyghur Congress and the Uyghur Human Rights Project said that the whereabouts of Mattohti’s family is unknown.


Amir, a pseudonym used to protect him from reprisals, spent two years inside Bangkok’s Suan Phlu immigration detention center, living side-by-side with a group of Uyghurs in 2020. As a refugee himself who is now safely outside the facility, he claims the Uyghur community was treated far worse than all of the other detainees inside for “political reasons.”

“They were pretty much treated like terrorists,” Amir told VICE World News. “They were not allowed visits, could not receive money, and were not allowed to use mobile phones. Their leaders were punished if immigration authorities found out if they were using a mobile phone.”

He added that immigration officials would routinely ransack their living space and go through their belongings looking for contraband.

A former detainee in Bangkok’s Suan Phlu immigration detention center said that the Uyghur community was treated far worse than the others due to "political reasons."

A former detainee in Bangkok’s Suan Phlu immigration detention center said that the Uyghur community there was "treated like terrorists." Photo: Romeo GACAD / AFP

The two Uyghur rights groups are now calling on the Thai government to release detained Uyghurs immediately and provide them with resettlement choices.

“How many more deaths will take place before Thai authorities act with humanity to release these innocent people who are merely seeking safe haven?” said Omer Kanat, the executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group based in Washington.

“Uyghurs around the world are filled with anguish that these refugees have been left in misery for nine years and the world has not lifted a finger to rescue them.”

John Quinley III, director of Fortify Rights, an international human rights watchdog, calls for an “urgent independent investigation” into the deaths at Thailand’s immigration detention centers, which also hold North Korean defectors and Rohingyas from Myanmar.


“The Government of Thailand should end the indefinite detention of refugees and migrants,” he told VICE World News, adding that the government should collaborate with civil society organizations and human rights groups to find alternatives to detention.

“Refugees are not a national security threat but people who need protection.” 

In 2017, a Rohingya girl died in an immigration detention center in southern Thailand. Rights groups say she “died from bleeding in her brain and an alleged blood-clotting disorder.” Her death sparked concern among the refugee rights community about the conditions inside Thailand’s detention centers. 

Detainees have detailed the squalid conditions inside these centers, crammed with hundreds of people who face high risks of diseases. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have documented detainees’ lack of access to proper hygiene, nutritious food, physical exercise, or medical treatment. On top of this, numerous children have been unlawfully detained due to their immigration status for months or years.

For years, detainees have also said that they face torture and ill-treatment while inside Thailand’s detention centers. Although the government denies that detainees are abused, the evidence of mistreatment inside continues to mount. 

Bangkok’s Suan Phlu immigration detention center did not reply immediately to VICE World News’ request for comment via email and phone.

Amir, the refugee who spent two years in Bangkok’s detention center, recalled that every day he spent inside was pain. But for the Uyghurs in particular, the odds of being released were depressingly bleak.

“The whole thing is worrying,” Amir said. “Those men are locked up and there’s no clear way out.”

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