Up to one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities have been arbitrarily detained in internment camps in the far-west Xinjiang region, according to human rights groups and a UN panel.
China maintains that it is detaining people guilty of minor crimes, and has sent them to “vocational centres” and that inmates are “grateful” to be there.
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But Uighur activists have estimated up to three million people have been detained in the camps, Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International, told The Independent.
“The scale is scary. We haven’t seen in recent Chinese history that there would be such a scale of detaining people in camps in such huge numbers,” he said.
“So I think it’s legitimate for people to raise concern about how the camps are being run similar to wartime concentration camps. It’s comparable in scale.”
He said Amnesty had reports from former detainees who said they were forced to attend political re-education lessons and sing political songs. Previous reports have said Muslims were forced to denounce Islam and swear loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, in addition to being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol – acts forbidden by their religion.
But new reports of life in the camps or the wider region are rare, mostly because former detainees are too afraid to talk about their cases and because the Chinese state controls what journalists in the region can do, according to Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
“It’s a region that at least in theory journalists can get into, but the controls on what they can do once there are incredibly strict, and those have only gotten tighter,” she told The Independent. “It is a huge story that people are aware of, but it’s hard to get fresh information.”
She added: “One of the big challenges is that the diaspora community is rightly very concerned about surveillance. So while you do see a few more people speaking out, there is a lot of logic in the minds of people who are concerned about speaking out, because they’re concerned about their family members inside China.”
She said there was also the issue that it was harder for those who had been detained to leave China, adding: “When you see a government denying people the right to leave, it generally means they’ve got something to hide.”
Another reason could be Uighurs’ unique status as both an ethnic and religious minority, Ms Richardson said. “Uighurs are not nearly as well known as an ethnic community worldwide as Tibetans are. And there’s the issue of Islamophobia, which the Chinese government has stoked at home. They say Xinjiang is awash with terrorists and it [China] is merely following a counter-terror and counter-extremism strategy like everyone else is.”
While Chinese officials initially issued blanket denials the country ran mass internment camps, they later defended them by saying they were used for citizens who were guilty of minor offences as vocational centres to provide employment opportunities
The international reaction has also been somewhat muted, though criticism of Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim minority are increasing.
“If any other government in the world was locking up a million Muslims I think we can reasonably expect to have seen demands for a debate at the UN Security Council or an international investigation,” Ms Richardson said. “That’s generally unlikely to happen with China.”
Last week, the United Nations’ most senior human rights official recently requested direct access to the Xinjiang region to verify the “worrying reports” of re-education camps.
“We have been asking for direct access to the region to be able to check and verify the worrying reports we are receiving,” Michelle Bachelet, the high commissioner for human rights, told a news conference in Geneva.
Her request came a day after Germany’s human rights commissioner, Barbel Kofler, said China blocked her from travelling to the region.
“I am shocked by reports of the treatment of the Turkic Uighur minority,” Ms Kofler said in a statement last Tuesday. “I would have liked to have gained a first-hand impression of the situation there and will continue to push for permission to visit Xinjiang soon.”
But Ms Richardson said it was encouraging that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which states it is ”the collective voice of the Muslim world”, has issued increasingly strong statements about China and the arbitrary detention of Uighur and Muslim minorities.
“One of the threads of those debates all along has been ‘why isn’t the Muslim community of the world speaking up for Muslims in China?’ Well, it looks like they are now,” Ms Richardson said.
It comes amid reports more than one million Han Chinese people have moved into the homes of Uighur Muslim families to report on whether they display Islamic or unpatriotic beliefs.
American anthropologist Darren Byler said they were tasked with looking for signs their hosts’ attachment to Islam might be “extreme”, such as by looking to see if they had a Quran in the house or fasted at Ramadan.
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