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Illustration by Hayfaa Chalabi @hayfaachalabi

‘I don’t know if they’re alive’: Uyghurs in Europe fear for families back home

Three individuals share tales of missing relatives amidst protests against China’s persecution of the community

It was during a human rights webinar when Uyghur activist Abdurehim Gheni first caught my attention. Abdurehim had shared a video during the live feed, with snippets about his activism and journey thus far, trying to bring attention to the plight of Uyghurs. He was calling upon the world to take action against China “before it’s too late” and demanding justice for the victims in East Turkestan, which included his relatives. I reached out to find out more about his story. 

Abdurehim’s battle for the truth

Abdurehim is currently based in the Netherlands and has not had any contact with 19 members of  his family since May 2017. Now, almost five years later, he says: “I don’t know if they are alive, in camps or in prison”. 

Abdurehim sought asylum in the Netherlands in 2007. Since then, he has been highlighting the persecution faced by Uyghurs from the Chinese authorities through protests and advocating for Uyghur rights on social media. In the build up to the Beijing Olympics, he became particularly  active in organising demonstrations against China in the Netherlands.

“I came to the Netherlands to seek political asylum in May 2007,” he says, citing severe prejudice, especially at his workplace, and fears of escalating persecution as reason for his departure. “I was subjected to all kinds of discrimination in East Turkestan [Xinjiang] and first fled to Malaysia before arriving in the Netherlands.” 

Abdurehim has been demonstrating alone in front of Amsterdam’s Dam Square since June 2018. He has also protested in Paris and Geneva to demand information about his missing family’s whereabouts and for an end to Uyghur persecution.

“On 14th August 2020, I protested outside the Chinese embassy in Amsterdam to find out whether my family members were still alive. When I entered the courtyard of the embassy to get their answer, I was arrested by the Dutch police and released 2 hours later with a fine of €1,000.”

The next day, Abdurehim received a call from his younger brother who said that all his family members were alive. 

Talking under duress

But Abdurehim remains unconvinced about the claims of their safety as he was unable to speak to the rest of them directly and fears his brother may have also been speaking under pressure. 

“On 24th September 2020, I received a letter from the Chinese authorities informing me that five members of my family had been separately charged with various crimes and were now facing sentences up to 16 years of imprisonment,” Abdurehim tells me. The charges ranged from organising public gatherings “to disturb social order” to “inciting racial discrimination.” As for the other 14 missing family members, he does not know. “I still haven’t  heard from them,” he says.

Censorship and denial 

In 2018, the United Nations revealed that at least a million Uyghurs had been detained in ‘counter-extremism centres’ in China’s north-western ‘Xinjiang’ province – though Abdurehim insists on calling it East Turkestan only – and a further two million Uyghurs had been forced into so-called ‘re-education camps.’

Beijing denies the accusations of human rights abuses, calling them fabricated political tools being used by anti-Chinese actors. “There has never has been a so-called genocide, forced labour or religious oppression in Xinjiang,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the United Nations Human Rights Council last year. “Such inflammatory accusations are fabricated out of ignorance and prejudice,” he continued.

China has also been unwilling to allow independent international monitors to conduct investigations. 

Mounting evidence of genocide

In December 2021, a UK-based tribunal found China guilty of committing genocide against Uyghurs, including cases of forced birth control and sterilisation measures , as reported by the BBC. 

Human rights groups have also confirmed that they have found evidence of “mass detentions, forced labour, political indoctrination, torture and forced sterilisation in Xinjiang.”

Aziz Isa Elkun, another Uyghur activist and an academic at SOAS University of London, lost contact with his family members in 2017 and has no idea what happened to them or where they are now. This includes his 80-year-old mother, who is a widow and has none of her children there to take care of her.

Aziz has been living in the UK since 2001; he moved here from East Turkestan after being fired from his job for supporting a Uyghur student uprising and being accused of separatism. Since then, he has been trying to amplify the voices of  those being persecuted in his homeland. An ethnic Uyghur, he grew up in a remote village near the Tarim River, about 10 kilometres away from East Turkistan’s (Xinjiang) largest prison and experienced extreme poverty during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Propaganda tools

“I saw my mother on the Chinese CGTV and other Chinese media on 14th January 2020. It was very clear that she was being forced to speak against her will. Her voice trembled and I could see that she was feeling deep sadness and fear,” says Aziz. He believes this is proof that the Chinese government has been keeping his mother hostage and using her as part of their propaganda.

Aziz also says his sister was detained in a camp for a year and a half by Chinese authorities and he doesn’t know whether his mother was held in the same place.

“During the last three years, I have never had the chance to truly speak to her. I have received calls from her, however she said words that proved to me she was either being forced or threatened by the Chinese Police” he says. Plenty of evidence suggests that many atrocities are committed against the Uyghurs by the Chinese authorities. Hundreds of Uyghur children have also been separated from their parents and are put into orphanages and boarding schools.  

The need for – and lack of – an international response 

Aziz has urged immediate action to save the Uyghurs from ongoing persecution, which he says is “steadfastly rising”. 

Dr Abdullah Faliq, Managing Director at the Cordoba Foundation and a long-term campaigner for the human rights of Uyghur Muslims, says that China has been brutally targeting the Uyghur Muslim population of East Turkistan for years. Until recently, the international response to the genocide of Uyghurs, including that from the Muslim world, has been sadly muted.

More recently this has been seen in the widespread failure of many countries to boycott the Beijing Olympics, which would have provided an opportunity to signal to China a strong opposition to their treatment of the Uyghur Muslims. Although diplomatic boycotts were made by countries including the UK, athletes were still sent to compete.

Resistance from the diaspora and beyond

Dr Faliq’s foundation has been collaborating with Uyghur leaders and communities in the UK and abroad by organising events, rallies and roundtables. Their work has supported a legal track to prosecute China in the International Criminal Court for committing genocide against the Uyghurs through supporting Rodney Dixon QC, a British lawyer specialising in international law at Temple Garden Chambers in London and The Hague, whose legal team acting for The East Turkistan Government in Exile and Uyghur victims, submitted a complaint to the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor in July 2020 asking them to open an investigation into the matter. The foundation has also assisted with major campaigns, including lobbying the UK government to declare China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide.  

“We remain committed to seeing justice and freedom for the Uyghurs,” Dr Faliq says, adding that the global dismissal of evidence of the brutal persecution of Uyghur Muslims has shown that the world is yet to learn the lessons from other genocides that have taken place in Srebrenica, Rwanda and during the Holocaust

“Our work over the years will hopefully prompt an international response to this terrible reality,” he says.

Aziz resonates a similar sentiment despite odds against his community, reiterating that Uyghurs suffer from the worst genocide in the 21st century and it is only “hope for a better tomorrow” that they hold on to. 

“Our belief in humanity will never perish,” he states, maintaining that their entire struggle for Uyghurs in China is yet to bear fruit but they [Uyghur activists and supporters worldwide] continue to show perseverance in the face of fear, uncertainty and persecution.   

What can you do?

Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) recommends individuals willing to help the Uyghur community being persecuted in China through several ways. This includes writing to a local MP or political representative and urging them to demand an action and consideration from their governments towards the plight of Uyghurs. 

Supporting the global campaign of the boycott of fashion brands complicit in benefitting from the state-sponsored forced labour of the Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities is another way to go. 

Signing petitions and contacting people, such as community leaders with access to a larger audience, providing them with resources about the Uyghur cause and encouraging and supporting them in organising rallies to create awareness can also help draw more attention towards the plight of Uyghurs from East Turkestan. 

Links to sign petitions/extend support to Uyghurs:

Book recommendations:

  • The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign Against a Muslim Minority
  • How I survived a Chinese a Chinese Reeducation Camp: A Uyghur Woman’s Story
  • The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land

Research papers:

Illustration by Hayfaa Chalabi @hayfaachalabi

The illustration shows the two realities that Uyghurs live inside and outside China. Outside, fighting for their rights and for the release of their families and Inside suffering the consequences of their religious beliefs. The prisoners are kneeling in a position that indicates the powerlessness and torture they go through, but also kneeling in a position that muslims perform to pray. The mat under their knees shows the reason behind their genocide and the broken TV symbolises China’s propaganda.

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