A life of fear for Uighur Muslim refugees

A life of fear for Uighur Muslim refugees
Comment: Fleeing the country is no guarantee of safety, writes CJ Werleman.
5 min read
21 Nov, 2018
'Targeting Uyghur Muslims critics and refugees abroad has now become commonplace' [AFP]
For the past six decades, tens of thousands of Uighur Muslims have fled East Turkistan, or what is considered the Xinjiang region by China, for Western democratic countries in search of freedom from want and fear, making new homes in lands as far away as Australia, United States, and Europe.

With China implementing even more brutish repressive measures and policies against the Uighurs in recent times, these migrants and asylum seekers are faced with the excruciating uncertainty of not knowing the fate and well-being of their loved ones, while also being targeted by the Chinese government in their newly adopted countries.

What was once a mass exodus, however, has slowed into a trickle, with China not only
confiscating passports of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang in 2016, but also arresting and imprisoning those who try to flee persecution at the hands of Chinese government authorities.

Today there's somewhere between 1 and 3 million Uighurs who've either been detained, imprisoned, or forced into one of the many newly constructed "re-education camps" throughout the far-Western region of the country, which is prompting many human rights activists to draw parallels between China's mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang with the Nazi's atrocities against Jews in Europe during the middle of the previous century.

In China's concentration camps, Uighur Muslims are forced to denounce Islam, renounce their culture and swear allegiance to Communist ideology, while torture and a life in prison or worse awaits those who defy indoctrination.

For Uighur refugees abroad, not only is returning home unthinkable, but also extricating their children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles from China has become almost impossible.

Steven Zhang is a Hui Muslim who now resides in the United States, but his Uighur Muslim wife, Hariguli Aimaier, was arrested by Chinese authorities on January 18, 2016, when she tried to cross the border in an effort to flee China and join him in the US. His wife would be dead a mere six weeks after her arrest, having being subjected to cold water torture techniques during her imprisonment.

Several months later, Zhang returned to China to demand justice and accountability for his wife's death, but instead of receiving a hearing or even an apology, Zhang alleges the Chinese government tried to murder him in what he described as a
"motorcycle accident manipulation" - meaning China tried to dress up an assassination attempt on him to look like a freak traffic accident.

Zhang warned that because of my efforts to expose China's repression of the Uighur in Xinjiang, I should expect to have my laptop and phone "hacked soon by Shanghai".

"If you're determined to disclose the big picture of Chinese Communist Party's crimes against Uighur Muslims, you need to take precautions against potential female entrapment [honey trap], cash bribery, probably followed by traffic accident manipulation," a warning that rings loudly now that Chinese government officials, including the Deputy Ambassador to Pakistan have smeared me in the media as a "
notorious anti-China propagandist".

Targeting Uighur Muslim critics and refugees abroad has now become commonplace, with even Uighur students in foreign countries being targeted and threatened with notices demanding their immediate return - "often after detaining their parents in China", according to 
The Wall Street Journal.

When I interviewed Jack James, a Uighur Muslim refugee in Australia who uses a nom de guerre out of fear Chinese government agents will target his family members in Xinjiang for speaking to a Western journalist, he told me all of the 3,000 Uighur Muslim refugees in Australia had now lost contact with their family members and friends in China.

"We have lost all contact with family members in China since this year," James told me. "It's the major problem for every Uighur refugee at the moment, and because of the Chinese crackdown, we are too afraid to make contact with our family members because China is using modern technologies to track our family's communications. We are afraid contacting them will put them in great danger."

For Uighur Muslim refugees such as James, the paradox of being living freely in an open and democratic society while, at the same time, living in permanent fear of Chinese government reprisal could not be starker.

"We can do whatever we want, but at the moment, it's hard for us," Horigul Yusuf, a Uighur refugee in Adelaide, Australia told The Sydney Morning Herald.

"I can't even explain. I can't express how difficult it is. I don't want to socialize with anyone, I just want to be at home and think about my family."

An Uighur refugee who successfully sought asylum status in Australia while on a student visa two years ago echoed her fears and anxieties, telling me that his every waking hour is spent worried about the fate of his wife and one-year-old child who were detained at Beijing's international airport in mid-2017 when they tried to join him in Sydney.

Despite daily efforts to obtain information about his wife's status at the Chinese embassy in Australia, he still has no idea of the health or whereabouts of his spouse and child.

What's even more alarming is the fact the international community has known about China's savage and oppressive measures against the Uighur for the past year or so, with a slew of human rights groups and the United Nations documenting similar testimonies, but until now has done nothing meaningful to alleviate their suffering.

What more will it take?

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.