On March 25th, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu raised the issue of Uyghur Muslims during talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. This followed several protests against the horrid treatment of the ethnic group in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang. Over 1,000 protestors had gathered in the Turkish capital of Istanbul, chanting phrases such as “Dictator China,” and “Stop Uyghur genocide, close the camps,” and waving blue-white flags similar to those flown for East Turkestan’s independence movement.
“We are here to ask about our families,” Imam Hasan Ozturk, an Uyghur protestor, told Reuters. “Why can’t we get in touch with our families? Are they dead or alive? Where are they? Are they at camps or outside?”
The Uyghur genocide refers to the Chinese government’s ongoing human rights abuse against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities around the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. China has repeatedly denied any accusations of abuse in Xinjiang, instead claiming that it had set up “complexes” to provide vocational training and put an end to Islamist extremism and separatism. The government went on to claim that the Uyghurs holding protests near Chinese diplomatic premises in Turkey have been trying to deceive the Turkish people and damage relations between the countries.
The Uyghur Muslims are an ethnic minority that are culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian regions while speaking their own language similar to Turkish. 12 million Uyghurs live in the Xinjiang region in northwest China. However, a recent mass immigration of Han Chinese, China’s ethnic majority, has put Uyghur culture and livelihoods at risk. Xinjiang is, in theory, autonomous and self-governing, but also rich in oil and natural gas. The region is an important trade link between China to the rest of Central Asia and to Europe. Thus, China’s main government keeps Xinjiang under great restriction as it controls how the region governs itself.
Since 2014, the Chinese government has instituted policies which have led to Uyghur Muslims being held in internment camps. The government calls these camps “re-education camps,” but their conditions and how they are operated say otherwise. A majority of these camps are being operated in secret and without any due legal processes. In 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found evidence of more than 380 of these “re-education camps,” and leaked documents known as the China Cables showed that the camps were being run as high security prisons with very strict discipline and punishments for the Uyghurs’ “wrongdoings.”
Researchers doing satellite work for global mapping software Google Earth discovered the camps in 2018. A high security compound had sprung up in what was once a patch of untouched, ash-grey sand since their last photos in 2015. This compound was enclosed with a 2 km-long exterior wall surrounded by sixteen guard towers. To gain more information, the B.B.C. looked to the European Space Agency’s Sentinel database of satellite images. By 2019, those images showed that the camp had extended, with many of the same prison-type structure being built in arrays across Xinjiang.
The B.B.C. has also done some on-the-ground work. When investigators landed in Xinjiang, they were followed by at least five cars, containing uniformed and plain-clothed police officers and government officials. The officials made the investigators stop the car and leave before they could even enter the compound.
Before leaving the country, B.B.C. investigators spoke with some of the inhabitants of Dabancheng, a small town right outside Xinjiang. The discussions were fleeting, as authorities seemed to be watching from every corner. Many said that the buildings in Xinjiang were a re-education school. The main purpose of the “education” facilities is, apparently, to combat extremism through a mix of legal theory, work skills, and Chinese language training. One goal is to make Uyghurs forget their Turkish tongue and speak fluent Chinese instead. The schools operate under a strict dress code, with no Muslim women allowed to wear a headscarf. These are prime examples of ethnic cleansing.
“There are tens of thousands of people there [at the school] now,” one source told the B.B.C. “They have some problems with their thoughts.” Little did he know, “school” meant mental and physical abuse – a brutal repercussion for having different beliefs.
Critics of the camps, non-governmental organizations, government officials, and other human rights experts have raised an outcry over these camps’ many issues, including the suppression of Uyghur religious practices, political indoctrination, and abuse. Human rights-centered maltreatment includes forced sterilization, contraception, and abortion. Chinese authorities have acknowledged the obvious fall in birth rates of the Xinjiang region, but do not attribute it to the genocide.
Those who have managed to escape the camps have described horrific experiences. Many speak of physical and mental abuse, and women in particular speak of mass rape and sexual abuse. Just a few months ago, in December of 2020, the B.B.C.’s research into the camps showed over half a million Uyghurs being forced to pick cotton and work at factories that had been built on the camp grounds. Satellite images of the camps show these factories within the camp walls.
According to laws put in place after the Holocaust, this oppression and mistreatment of human beings is illegal. But no formal action can take place until other countries stand off against the Chinese government. The Biden administration must take action to stop China’s genocide against the Uyghur Muslims.
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