Melbourne, Australia – Members of the Uighur Muslim community in Australia are renewing calls for action from the government amid reports that a number of Australian permanent residents are effectively trapped in China’s Xinjiang province.
The Guardian reported on Monday that at least 17 Australian residents are being held under house arrest, in prison or detained in so-called “re-education” centres in the far western region of Xinjiang, also referred to by some Uighurs as East Turkistan.
They are thought to have been detained while on trips to visit relatives in China and some have family members who are Australian citizens.
“As soon as they arrive, their passport is taken away because they’re holding a Chinese passport, even though they have permanent residency,” Nurgul Sawut, the Uighur-Australian activist who provided The Guardian with the details of the 17 affected, told Al Jazeera.
“We’re not only talking about the 17 people back in Xinjiang. We’re talking about their direct family members here in Australia. There are 17 families whose lives are destroyed. They can’t continue with their work. Their mental health is deteriorating,” she said.
“This is not a surprise for us. Our community told us that their family members have been in trouble in East Turkistan since 2017,” said Nurmuhammad Majid, president of the East Turkistan Australian Association (ETAA).
“The number is over 20 according to my calculations, including some minor children as well. We are gravely concerned for their safety and well-being.”
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) however, said it was “not aware of any Australian citizens currently detained in Xinjiang”.
“We are aware of a number of cases where family and friends in Australia are unable to contact individuals who have travelled to Xinjiang,” a spokesperson for DFAT said in a statement obtained by Al Jazeera.
“In some cases, those individuals have Australian connections such as permanent residency or a spouse visa. Where Australian family members request us to do so, we have been making enquiries with the Chinese authorities regarding the whereabouts of these individuals,” the spokesperson said.
There are an estimated 600 Uighur families residing in Australia, with a combined population of around 3000. “Some Uighurs spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get permanent residency,” Majid from ETAA said.
“They have rights to live indefinitely in Australia according to the visa conditions. A majority of them have established homes, work and businesses in Australia.”
Internment and intimidation
The Chinese government has in recent years intensified a crackdown against its Muslim minority population, claiming it is combating extremism and the “ideological illness” of Islam. Beijing issued a decree in January announcing that it aimed to “Sinicise” Islam to make it “compatible with socialism” within the next five years.
A United Nations human rights panel last August claimed that more than one million Uighurs and other minorities were being held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy”. Those outside of the camps have been subject to surveillance and suppression of their ability to practice Islam, in what some have deemed “cultural genocide“.
With some 10 percent of the overall Uighur population detained, this has impacted the Uighur diaspora worldwide.
Sawut, the Uighur-Australian activist, said that most Uighurs in Australia have between 20 and 50 family members in camps, with one having up to 200 of their maternal and paternal relatives interned.
At least three Australian citizens were put into China’s re-education camps between 2017 and 2018 before being subsequently released, according to DFAT. Many overseas Uighurs have reported intimidation by the Chinese government.
Sawut, who has lived in Australia since 2001, said Chinese authorities in Xinjiang phoned her sister in Melbourne ordering her to stop her activism. “[They threatened] if I don’t stop my activities then my relatives won’t be released [from internment camps],” she told Al Jazeera.
“There are many cases like this. Sometimes they’re receiving phone calls from [Chinese] embassies, sometimes from local authorities in Urumqi or Kashgar, demanding that their relatives release their personal details. By taking hostage of the relatives at home [in Xinjiang].”
“Don’t ring anymore,” Sawut’s family in Xinjiang told her. “Because every time you rang, the consequence is the police will be at our door.”
Nury A Turkel, a board member of the US-based Uighur Human Rights Project who met with members of the Uighur community around Australia in late 2018, told Al Jazeera that “[the Uighur diaspora] are experiencing crippling anxiety because of their inability to maintain contact with their families”.
“They also show a deep level of frustration with the Chinese government and disappointment with their own government for not doing enough,” he said.
Call to action
Australia has joined the United States, Canada and other Western countries in calling for China to end its mass internment of Uighurs. Nevertheless, rights activists say the response from Western governments has been inadequate.
“Australia and the US could put together a coalition to address the humanitarian crisis involving the Uighurs in a multilateral and collective effort,” Turkel said. “The business as usual approach, engaging in bilateral talks behind closed doors, has not yielded any response.”
“The Australian government should throw its support behind an effort at the Human Rights Council to send a UN fact-finding mission to Xinjiang,” said Human Rights Watch’s Australia director Elaine Pearson, echoing a call from 278 scholars issued last November.
“We haven’t seen the Australian government take any clear actions to help us,” added Majid. While New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the issue of the Uighur with Chinese government officials last year, her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison has not publicly spoken on the issue.
Australia should work with its Five Eyes intelligence partners – the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand – to pressure China.
“How come Canada can do better than Australia? Even New Zealand has done better than Australia,” Sawut said.
The opposition Australian Labor Party has called upon the government to do more to protect Uighurs in Xinjiang – particularly those who are Australian residents.
“It is important that the Uighur community in Australia do not feel pressured or intimidated by events in China and we urge DFAT to continue raise the issue of Uighur Australians with their counterparts in Beijing,” said a statement from Australia’s shadow foreign minister Penny Wong. “We are particularly concerned about reports of Australian residents being detained in China.”
“Engagement with China is very important to Australia but, as with any other country, it never means we abandon our values, or our sovereignty,” Wong said.
On Saturday, Turkey became the first Muslim-majority country to openly condemn China’s treatment of the Uighur. “We invite Chinese authorities to respect fundamental human rights of the Uighur Turks and shut down concentration camps,” said a statement from its foreign ministry.
China’s subsequent release of footage of prominent Uighur musician Abdurehim Heyit, to prove he is still alive, demonstrates “Chinese authorities still care about how they’re being portrayed in the international community”, said Turkel.
“[Western governments] should also use international bodies and international law to hold the Chinese accountable.”