Uighurs Flee China In The Face of Religious and Ethnic Persecution


The Chinese government has continued its campaign of ethnic persecution of the Uighur Muslim population of Xinjiang province in recent months. The UN Human Rights Committee has estimated that approximately 1 million Uighurs have been forced into secret detention camps across the province under the pretence of combating religious extremism. As a result, families at risk of being detained have started to flee to Istanbul where they are seeking asylum. Unfortunately, Beijing is now exerting its economic influence over Ankara and tacitly pressuring the Turkish government to deport all Uighur asylum seekers back to China.

In August 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee member Gay McDougall stated that China has “turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp.” Since then, international advocacy organizations including Human Rights Watch (HRW) have claimed that anybody in the region in contact with people abroad via WhatsApp or that have relatives in one of “26 ‘sensitive’ countries like Indonesia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey” are being targeted. The BBC has also reported that people in the camps are being forced to learn Mandarin, renounce Islam, and encouraged to ascribe to President Jinping’s cult of personality. China vehemently denies these accusations and at an August 2018 UN conference in Geneva, senior Communist Party official Hu Lianhe contested that “there [are] no such thing as re-education centers.” He continued to explain that “there is no torture, persecution or disappearance of repatriated personnel,” but rather the rehabilitation of minor criminals that have been involved in terrorist activity.

Although the international community is aware of the human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese government in Xinjiang, they have been reluctant to react due to China’s position as an economic powerhouse. For example, ahead of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to China in early 2018, the UK had expressed its concerns about violence against the Uighurs. Similarly, a US congressional committee urged the Trump administration to sanction officials and companies involved in the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang. However, these responses exemplify the international community’s tendency to issue a condemnation rather than formulate a substantive response when dealing with China. Especially for the United States, using economic sanctions against China would also disadvantage the United States economically. Therefore, an effective response that would not restrict the US economy would be to support the efforts of international media in their coverage of Xinjiang. The main strategic advantage that China still has is its ability to control media coverage of the issue domestically and internationally. However, if there was more coverage of the Uighur migrants seeking asylum in Turkey or fleeing to Central Asia, China would no longer be able to control the narrative and international human rights groups would be able to devote more attention to the issue.

Regardless of the efforts of the international media and diplomatic circles in Xinjiang in the coming months, the Chinese government’s efforts to spy on citizens and control daily life continues to be an ever-looming threat to liberty. Chinese law does not allow citizens the rights to privacy or expression, and crackdowns on ethnic minorities and religious groups like the Uighurs are indicative of Beijing’s increasingly autocratic tendencies. Despite a growing economy, Chinese citizens will enjoy fewer rights than before.

Since most of the international community seems reluctant to respond to this crisis, the Uighur population of China will likely face continued persecution in the coming months. Should the plight of these people garner more international media attention, human rights NGOs and international organizations will have a greater ability to face Beijing. However, should China continue to control the narrative and suppress media attention, they will continue to be able to systematically terrorize their citizens and face very limited backlash from the global community.

Luke O'Grady

Luke is currently an undergraduate student at Georgetown University in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service pursuing a degree in Science, Technology, and International Affairs (STIA) and a minor in French.
Luke O'Grady

About Luke O'Grady

Luke is currently an undergraduate student at Georgetown University in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service pursuing a degree in Science, Technology, and International Affairs (STIA) and a minor in French.