On March 20, Sweden confirmed that it would offer official refugee status to Uighur Muslims fleeing persecution in China. Last September, it followed Germany in deciding to immediately stop the deportation of anyone from the minority ethnic group back to their native home.
Now, the UK is being urged by human rights groups to do the same, and offer legal protection to any Uighurs applying for asylum in Britain. Right now, they must prove they are at serious risk of harm, or they will be sent back.
But who are the Uighurs — and why are they under threat? Here’s everything you need to know.
The Uighur people are largely Muslim, with 11 million living in Xinjiang, western China.
It’s widely understood that China has feared for a long time that the Uighurs might break away after they briefly declared autonomy in the early 20th century, and especially since ethnic riots that killed hundreds over a decade ago was then followed by some terrorist attacks. So the country took its chance to crack down — and not just on those apparently radicalised.
Ethnic Cleansing of Uighur Muslims in #China:— Khaled Beydoun (@KhaledBeydoun) May 11, 2019
-Up to 1.8 Million Uighurs reportedly placed in detention camps
-Children stripped from families, placed in orphanages
-Muslims forced to eat pork & drink alcohol in camps
China says it’s tackling extremism. But human rights groups insist that it’s an attack on Islam.
The UN has stated that Uighur Muslims are treated like “enemies of the state”, with China having turned Xinjiang, its largest region, “into something that resembles a massive internment camp, shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone.”
The BBC reports that those incarcerated in the camps are forced to swear allegiance to President Xi Jinping, renounce their faith, and learn Mandarin. A former inmate said he was forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, forbidden by Islam, while there have been numerous stories of torture and murder.
A US congressional committee on China called it “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today."
The committee added: "Muslim ethnic minorities are being subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, egregious restrictions on religious practice and culture, and a digitised surveillance system so pervasive that every aspect of daily life is monitored."
China has aggressively ramped up oppression of its predominantly Muslim Uighur minority in recent years.— Vox (@voxdotcom) May 7, 2019
Some reports have estimated that as many as 1 million Uighurs are behind held in Chinese internment camps. pic.twitter.com/hMyvzUUP7C
Even for those interned in camps, prosecution can follow any demonstration of Islamic faith like growing “abnormal” beards, observing Ramadan, or wearing headscarves.
Messages to family abroad are tracked through WhatsApp; DNA samples are collected for a database to rate loyalty to communism; QR codes are put on doors so police can check whether anyone may be inside their own homes. And then there’s facial recognition systems and identity cards — all so Uighur Muslims are systematically kept under surveillance.
It’s reportedly extremely difficult for press to gain access to the region, too. However, the BBC has collected a series of satellite images that indicates the rapid growth of a number of secret compounds across Xinjiang.
"They wouldn't let me sleep, they would hang me up for hours and would beat me,” one former prisoner called Omir told BBC Newsnight. “They had thick wooden and rubber batons, whips made from twisted wire, needles to pierce the skin, pliers for pulling out the nails.”
“All these tools were displayed on the table in front of me, ready to use at any time,” he added. “And I could hear other people screaming as well."
China denies allegations of abuse, claiming the centres are nothing more than “vocational schools”. On March 18, the government released a report claiming that it had imprisoned 13,000 “terrorists” in the last five years, in what the Guardian describes as an “aggressive propaganda campaign” to combat accounts from human rights groups.
CNN traveled to China’s Xinjiang province to try to investigate facilities that the US says are detention camps.— CNN (@CNN) May 10, 2019
But, as @MattRiversCNN explains, the team was followed, harassed and delayed by authorities from the moment they arrived: https://t.co/AIqEuljXilpic.twitter.com/0CSdClbxz5
Britain was the only country apart from Turkey — which shares a certain cultural resemblance to the Uighurs with a large diaspora and a similar language — to raise the issue at the UN Human Rights Council in February. Lord Ahmad, a UK foreign office minister, said he was “deeply concerned” by the situation.
However, despite foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt stating in parliament that diplomats had confirmed reports of the concentration camps to be “broadly true”, there has been no action that’s gone any further than official statements.
Indeed, when Theresa May visited China last year to discuss post-Brexit trade deals, she was praised by the Chinese press for “sidestepping” human rights abuses, despite criticism back home.
And in 2015, former Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed President Xi Jinping to the UK with an official state visit, meaning that he had a banquet hosted in his honour and even met the Queen.
Elsewhere in the world, it appears that many countries are bound by similar ties of trade.
With the exception of Turkey, who’s president called ethnic violence in Xinjiang "a kind of genocide" when he was prime minister in 2009, many Muslim-majority countries like Iran and Egypt have remained silent on the issue. Business Insider suggests that they are perhaps cowed by the fear of calling out the world’s second largest economy.
In fact, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia — who has signed trade deals worth millions in Beijing — defended its use of concentration camps on Chinese state television, arguing that it was their “right”. When Turkey’s President Erdogan was prime minister in 2009, he called ethnic violence in Xinjiang "a kind of genocide."
Now the UK government has been urged by Amnesty International to follow Sweden in providing Uighur Muslims from Xinjiang safety in the knowledge that if they make an asylum application, Britain will accept them as refugees.
“Uighurs have been subjected to a sustained campaign of appalling persecution at the hands of the Chinese authorities there over recent years, and we have raised major concerns about the mass-scale internment of up to a million Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in giant camps,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds, director of Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights programme.
“It’s clear that being a Uighur is enough to put anyone at real risk if returned to China, and so any Uighur from China applying for asylum here in the UK should be granted it,” he added.
Hikvision provides discriminatory CCTV for prison camps in Xinjiang, which puts Tibetans and Uyghurs at serious risk. Hikvision is banned by the U.S. and Australia, but was Britain's biggest supplier of CCTV in 2016.— Karen Lee MP (@KarenLeeMP) January 31, 2019
We must oppose all human rights abuses, wherever they occur. pic.twitter.com/zDQCiXXOmR
Aziz Isa Elkun, an Uighur Muslim, British citizen, and academic living in London with his wife and children, has not heard from his mother and cousins in Xinjiang in years. In fact, he says that his whole village of 3,000 people has gone missing. He doesn’t know if they are alive or not, and is desperate for the UK to help him find answers.
“I’m just asking the British government to show some humanity,” Elkun told HuffPost UK. “I am a UK citizen and the government has a duty of care to me but they are not showing it.
“Sometimes I feel so frustrated because I am so powerless to help my people and family,” he said. “China is trying to destroy its Uighur population and it seems the world is just watching and not doing anything to stop them.”