Kuala Lumpur: Human rights groups have asked Malaysia not to deport 155 ethnic Uighur migrants, including 76 children, back to China, fearing they could face persecution.
A senior Malaysian immigration official said today that authorities found 90 members of the Muslim minority group hiding in a three-bedroom apartment and 65 other Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs) in another unit in an October 1 raid on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur that followed a tip-off.
The group comprising 42 men, 37 women, 43 boys and 33 girls has been sent to a detention center pending an investigation, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the case's sensitivity.
Ethnic tensions in the Xinjiang region in western China, home of the Turkish-speaking Uighurs, have fueled rising violence, with more than 300 people killed in the past year and a half. China blames the violence on secession-seeking terrorists. Uighurs complain of restrictive and discriminatory policies and practices by the government and the Han Chinese, the country's ethnic majority.
Malaysian rights group Lawyers for Liberty said more information was needed to determine why the 155 Uighurs fled China.
"In order to assess whether the Uighurs are refugees fleeing persecution, our immigration authorities must grant them immediate access to UNHCR so that they may seek asylum and have refugee status determined," it said in a statement today, referring to the United Nations' refugee agency.
Another Malaysian rights group, Suaram, said there was concern that deporting the Uighurs could "put their life at risk," especially since 76 children are involved. Uighurs repatriated to China in the past have expressed fear of long jail terms or the death penalty.
"Since they ran away with their families, we believe they are not linked to any militant activities," the Malaysian official said.
Malaysia deported six Uighur men in 2012 and 11 Uighurs in 2011.