Uyghur refugees speak out against genocide and crimes against humanity

Uyghur refugees speak out against genocide and crimes against humanity

Uyghur writer Abduweli Ayup speaks with the owner of a Uyghur bookstore in the Küçükçekmece neighbourhood of Istanbul, Turkey, on 16 March 2019.

(Marga Zambrana)

If the Uyghurs had a Richard Gere to give voice to their suffering their cause would be as well-known as that of the Tibetans. But while the Uyghurs face genocide on an equal scale at the hands of the Communist Party of China (CPC), no international celebrity has followed in Gere’s footsteps to become a spokesperson for the Turkic minority group.

Tens of thousands of Uyghurs have fled China in recent years since President Xi Jinping initiated a two-pronged policy of subjugation and assimilation in which Uyghurs are detained in mass in re-education camps or uprooted and sent to work outside of what is known as China’s autonomous Xinjiang region, in the country’s north-west, where the majority of Uyghurs live. Research by international media such as The New York Times and academic documents indicate that up to one million Uyghurs are currently imprisoned in these indoctrination camps. The suppression of their culture, language and places of worship is evident in the autonomous region. According to Beijing, the aim of these policies is to combat separatism, radical Islamism and terrorism.

While a certain number of radicalised Uyghurs have crossed Turkey’s borders to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in Syria, Chinese authorities have used this fact to place the entire ethnic group under suspicion using a nebulous concept of terrorism that is far from the United Nation’s definition.

The majority of the world’s estimated 20 million Uyghurs practice Sufism, a mystical or esoteric strand of Islam, and their way of life is essentially secular. They speak a Turkic language still written using the Arabic alphabet. Thought to be one of the earliest inhabitants of the Tarim Basin, China’s natural border with Central Asia, the declining Uyghur population there now comprises less than half of the 20 million residents of Xinjiang (East Turkestan to the Uyghurs). Other large communities of Uyghurs can be found in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, while the rest have recently migrated to Turkey, Europe and the Americas as refugees.

Unlike other Muslims in China, Uyghurs have a deeply rooted and unique cultural identity. After the fall of China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing dynasty, they created an independent state that lasted from 1933 to 1949 and ended in occupation by Maoist China, which marked the beginning of their present ordeal. During the Cultural Revolution, Uyghurs were subject to economic neglect and repression and prevented from practicing their cultural traditions. In order to placate their pro-independence sentiments, Beijing came up with an economic development plan and facilitated the arrival of settlers of the Han Chinese ethnic majority.

Owing to pressure from Beijing, a majority of Asian countries, including Thailand and Malaysia, and others such as Egypt, deport Uyghur refugees to China. According to human rights defenders, once in Chinese territory, they disappear and can face the death penalty.

Human rights groups such as the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) argue that practices such as arbitrary detentions, forced population transfers, forced labour and policies intended to reduce birth rates, including involuntary abortions and sterilisations, constitute acts of genocide and crimes against humanity in accordance with the Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute.

Ever since the CPC took control of the region in 1949, Beijing has imposed harsh restrictions on ethnic minorities such as Uyghurs and Kazakhs, among others, whose language, religion and traditions are very different from those of the majority Han Chinese. The mass arrival of Han Chinese combined with the regime’s repression have provoked resentment among some groups and individuals within the community who have carried out attacks and protests such as the 2009 riots in the region’s capital of Ürümqi, which resulted in several dozen deaths.

Turkey, a refuge for Uyghurs

Beijing’s relentless policies have resulted in a mass exodus of Uyghurs in recent years, some 60,000 of which have found relative protection in Turkey, a country whose culture and language are similar to their own. A large conservative Muslim Uyghur community has formed in the Anatolian city of Kayseri and there are communities of Uyghurs in several neighbourhoods of Istanbul, such as Aksaray, Küçükçekmece or Zeytinburnu, where they run their own shops and restaurants. Chinese tourists visiting Istanbul often go to Uyghur restaurants, whose cuisine is a mix of Chinese and Central Asian.

In one such restaurant, the cooks stretch the traditional Uyghur noodles laghmen and the cold lembu with acrobatic skill. The pulled noodles are accompanied by pieces of lamb, vegetables and a spicy sauce made from nuts and herbs that delight an enthusiastic clientele. At the door, a sign written in Chinese, English and Turkish reads: “No entry for Chinese.”

This is no joke, though it is an isolated case. Tahir, the restaurant’s owner, says that he hung up the sign himself. He lists his motives: “The Chinese mistreat us and discriminate against us. Uyghur prisoners are given water with acid, many have died from it. What’s more, Covid-19 comes from China and many Chinese tourists have come through Zeytinburnu. Some Uyghur restaurants let them in but I don’t want them in mine, I don’t trust them,” says the 34-year-old, who asked that his name be changed for fear of reprisals.

After being arrested and interrogated in China, Tahir left his hometown of Karamay in 2016. He fled to Turkey with his wife and three of his children. He had to leave two other children behind because they didn’t have passports. His family in Xinjiang has been under immense pressure since he fled. Tahir tried to talk to his parents after settling in Istanbul but they begged him to stop to avoid endangering their lives after receiving threatening visits from Chinese police. “I haven’t heard from my other two children since then.”

Thousands of kilometres away, in Norway, another Uyghur intellectual recalls his traumatic experience in a re-education camp. Writer, linguist, activist and poet Abduweli Ayup, born in Kashgar in 1973 and educated in the United States, was detained in 2014 and imprisoned for 15 months for founding a network of Uyghur language schools.

While the language is theoretically protected under China’s constitution, in practice authorities force schoolchildren to choose between Chinese and Uyghur. Ignorance of the former will keep them from finding a good job. Choosing the latter may land them in prison.

“Torture was part of interrogation,” says Ayup. “I certainly didn’t expect respectful treatment, but much less the diabolical things they did to me. The first night, three guards gathered about 20 prisoners, surrounded me and raped me. But that’s something I don’t want to talk about anymore,” he says looking down and visibly shaken.

Following his release in August 2015, Ayup and his family fled to Turkey. In his new home he continued to write, teach Uyghur to children of his ethnicity, and to advocate as an activist. He has written three books about the torture he endured and his works can still be found in the Uyghur bookstore in Kuçukçesmece.

Arrests of Uyghurs in Turkey

After the terrorist attack at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Day 2017, carried out by an Uzbek radical Islamist, life in Turkey changed for Abduweli Ayup and for many other Uyghurs. The Turkish security forces carried out mass arrests of Central Asian Muslims, among them Uyghurs. “Extremist groups in Turkey used the Uyghurs as protection,” Ayup explains. According to his own research, which he now carries out from Oslo, 400 Uyghurs were arrested in Turkey. He claims to have been interrogated and harassed by the Turkish authorities.

The political situation has changed significantly since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Xinjiang in 2012 and moved his ‘Uyghur brothers’ by offering them protection. By 2016, Erdogan had changed his tune and began to point out the existence of radical Uyghur groups in Turkey.

Tahir, the restaurant owner, no longer feels safe in Turkey. In January 2017, he and ten of his employees were arrested for suspected terrorist links. During the 15 days of their imprisonment, they suffered insults and physical abuse at the hands of the Turkish police, Tahir says. On two occasions, they were forced to board a plane bound for Hong Kong. A Uyghur community leader from Kayseri ultimately intervened and managed to free them. The reason for their arrests and imprisonment: some Uzbeks connected to the Reina terrorist attack had eaten at Tahir’s restaurant in the days prior to the attack.

According to an investigation by the Sunday Telegraph, in response to pressure from Beijing, Turkey is sending dozens of Uyghurs back to China via third countries such as Tajikistan.

The Office of the President, however, assured Equal Times in a statement that “Turkey is home to a considerable Uyghur community, some of whom have become Turkish citizens. The fact that so many Uyghurs choose to live, study and work in Turkey clearly demonstrates their sense of security here.”

The majority of Uyghur detainees in Turkey have been released. But according to Ayup, as many as 1,000 Uyghurs have left Turkey to seek refuge in Europe, as he did in 2019.

Since 2013, thousands of Uyghurs have joined radical Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda and IS in Syria. Over the last five years, Uyghur extremists have carried out attacks in China, Thailand and Kyrgyzstan that have resulted in deaths.

“It’s unfortunate that some Uyghurs appear to have travelled to Syria, but the same is true of nationals of many European countries. So there is no direct connection between Uyghurs and terrorism,” explains Peter Irwin, expert and senior project officer of the Uyghur Project.

“The Chinese government tends to frame this fact as proof that Uyghurs are a threat to its security. This doesn’t make sense, because there has never been organised violence among the Uyghurs in China. Low levels of violence, while regrettable, are also a reaction against the Chinese government’s relentless policy designed to prohibit even the slightest expression of Uyghur identity,” Irwin adds.

International criticism of Beijing, an uncertain future for Uyghurs

In early 2020, Ayup was responsible for leaking the ‘Xinjiang Files’, supposedly official documents detailing the detentions of Uyghurs in internment camps for reasons including “having too many children,” “growing a beard” and “applying for a passport.” There is credible evidence to suggest that Uyghurs are forced to work in cotton production, including the manufacture of coronavirus masks. Groups such as Amnesty International have denounced the harassment that Uyghurs face, including in the diaspora, and have highlighted Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang. Western countries and institutions, including Jewish anti-genocide activist groups, have responded with condemnation.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic this year, the United States banned the import of technology and textiles from 11 companies whose products were allegedly manufactured by Uyghur prisoners held in forced labour and internment camps. The European Union and other Western countries have also condemned repression of the Uyghurs. In September, the Swedish fashion brand H&M cancelled its purchases from a Chinese cotton supplier suspected of using forced Uyghur labour.

Faced with this criticism and evidence, Beijing has insisted on several occasions that the Uyghur detainees were receiving vocational training and that the re-education camps will be gradually scaled back. But reports by independent experts from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) indicate that the reality is very different and the detention centres in fact continue to increase.

In September, President Xi reiterated that the repressive policies being pursued in Xinjiang are “absolutely correct” and in a statement that suggests the continuation of such policies, said: “Xinjiang enjoys social stability and its people live in peace and satisfaction. The facts make abundantly clear that our work with minorities has been a success.”

“I am very hopeful about the actions being taken by certain countries. Jewish people are sympathising with us. Human rights activist are becoming increasingly involved in our cause. Uyghurs in the diaspora are learning their language and customs,” says Ayup.

Tahir is more cautious. “I don’t know if international support will be beneficial or harmful to the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs in China live in an open-air prison. The world is paying attention now but I don’t believe that decisive action is being taken against China’s atrocities. I call on the international community to defend the Uyghurs of East Turkestan.”

“It’s only a matter of time before the cost of China’s treatment of Uyghurs becomes too great to continue,” Irwin concludes. “Today it’s the Uyghurs, but tomorrow it may be you who suffers from Beijing’s policies, and you will regret not having stood up for them.”

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson