Some 200 people rescued by police from a human trafficking camp in southern Thailand are suspected to be Uygur Muslims from Xinjiang , Thai police sources said yesterday.
They were discovered late on Wednesday at a rubber plantation in a hilly area where at least three camps used by smugglers of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar were identified last year.
Those rescued included at least 100 children, most of them toddlers or still breastfeeding, and a pregnant woman. Many of the children cried while the women tried to quieten them as they sat under the tin roof of a car park at the Hat Yai immigration headquarters.
Police say the group claim to be Turkish, although they have no documents to prove it and none of them had spoken more than a few words of Arabic, even to local Thai Muslims who arrived to offer help.
However, police sources say, the group shows strong similarities to Uygur asylum seekers who have been detained in Bangkok.
The Chinese consul general was called in yesterday, and Turkish officials also arrived from Bangkok. Turkish envoy Ahmet Idem Akay and colleagues are to interview the group over the next two days to assess their background and status. Uygurs, a Turkic-speaking people, form the biggest ethnic minority in Xinjiang in China's far west.
"These people will refuse to acknowledge Chinese citizenship to avoid being forcibly repatriated," said Kayum Masimov, president of the Montreal-based Uyghur Canadian Society. "They will simply refuse to talk. They fear for their safety."
Human Rights Watch spokesman Phil Robertson said when Uygurs "try to flee overseas, Beijing often pursues them relentlessly". He added: "Over the past few years, there have been several serious incidents in Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand where China has used its influence to demand Uygur refugees and asylum seekers be returned against their will to China."
The discovery appears to be further evidence that people smugglers in southern Thailand - already a notorious trafficking hub for Rohingya boat people from Myanmar - are exploiting well-oiled networks to transport other nationalities in large numbers, despite an ongoing crackdown by Thai police.
"The human smugglers are expanding their product range," said Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot, a US-educated commander who has launched a series of raids on trafficking camps in southern Thailand, including Wednesday's.
A senior Chinese official based in Thailand said that if the people were Uygur, Bangkok should "deport them according to Thai law".
"What needs to be explained is how they got to Thailand," the official said.
In a possibly related incident, Malaysian police arrested 62 people who had illegally crossed the porous border from Thailand on Thursday, the New Straits Times newspaper reported. They also claimed to be Turkish, although it is highly unusual for Turks to seek asylum in this way.