Arkin (WUC), exclusive interview: Uyghurs under China management of Covid-19 pandemic

13/05/2020 di Andrea Aufieri


Daily Muslim proposes an exclusive interview to Zumretay Arkin, Program & Advocacy manager at the World Uyghur Congress, about the conditions of life of Uyghurs under the Covid-19 pandemic in China. 

Is it possible to describe the life of Uyghurs people in exile? How’s life like an expat? What they need and desire? Uyghurs in the diaspora face challenges as well. Since the internment camps in 2017, Uyghurs in the diaspora have mostly lost contact with their relatives back in East Turkistan, and a lot of them even lost their relatives to the internment camps. This led to an increase in activism in the diaspora, to try to free their relatives from the camps. But the Chinese response has been harsher, and all Uyghurs in the diaspora advocating for uyghur human rights face reprisals from China in their respective countries. Many prominent Uyghur activists have been harassed by the Chinese authorities, inside the UN, or other international institutions, by preventing them from participating in international meetings, or conferences to raise the Uyghur issue. From all the reprisals and the inability to contact their relatives back home, they all suffer from anxiety and live in fear or stress. 

Zumretay Arking, Program & Advocacy manager al World Uyghur Congress

How expats life is? What they need and desire? Uyghurs in the diaspora want freedom, respect of their human rights, dignity, and the right to go back and reunite with family and their homeland. They also want protection from their local governments when it comes to reprisals, and China’s long arm. 

What about Uyghur’s life in China under the spread of Covid-19 pandemic?  Last month WUC received credible reports from East Turkistan that many households are suffering from hunger due to food shortages. Uyghurs are forced to remain indoors due to the Chinese authorities’ attempt to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but have not received food or other necessary supplies. It is not clear if quarantine measures in the region have been relaxed, and if so to what extent. These discriminatory policies make life difficult for Uyghur families which are now present in almost every facet of their life. There have been numerous cases of Uyghurs dying of medical neglect or under other suspicious circumstances in the camps or shortly after they are allegedly released, raising serious concerns about the access to medical healthcare for Uyghurs.

How is  it possible to tell all over the wolrd about China treatment of Uyghurs? China treats all information related to the Covid-19 outbreak in East Turkistan as a state secret, which makes it very difficult to get access to any credible information. From testimonies of former detainees and leaked official docuuments, we know that detainees are held in very poor and overcrowded rooms, where they are subjected to physical and psychological torture. In the camps detainees have no access to adequate medical care. Therefore, the estimated 1-3 million Uyghurs still being detained in internment camps by the Chinese government are at a particular risk if the virus is not contained. In East Turkistan the total number of infected cases has dubiously remained constant at 76 cases, 3 deaths and 73 recoveries, for more than a month. Given the rapid spread of the virus and the insufficient medical supplies in this region, these numbers are likely not true. We are highly concerned that the number of infected cases is much higher and the virus already spread into the camps.

And what about food? There have also been numerous, credible reports of food shortages in the region, due to the Chinese government’s quarantine measures.  Reports indicate that Uyghurs were not informed of quarantine measures in advance and were not allowed to leave their homes. They were also not provided food by Chinese authorities, causing widespread food shortages. It is unclear if this has been improved since the apparent relaxation of quarantine measures.

What about sanitary conditions? According to Radio Free Asia, Uyghur health workers from East Turkestan are being forced to live in hotels in Ghulja city set up as quarantine centers to treat patients infected with COVID-19. Only ethnic Uyghurs have been sent to work in these centers and they have not been allowed to return home. This casts doubt on claims from the Chinese authorities who have claimed there are no new COVID-19 cases in East Turkistan. The Chinese authorities have treated the number of patients quarantined in these hotels and how many health workers were on site as a state secret. 

What about working conditions? On March 1, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ASPI, published its report on forced labour and the abusive practices of transferring camp detainees to major factories across China. This report estimates that more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred to factories outside of East Turkistan between 2017 and 2019 through labour transfer programs under a government policy known as ‘’Xinjiang Aid”. Credible reports have indicated that many Uyghurs were sent to forced labour facilities in the Hubei province, the epicenter of the virus, to work in factories as the rest of the province was forced into lockdown. The use of Uyghur forced labour and mass transfer of Uyghur detainees from internment camps during this pandemic has put thousands of innocent lives at risk. 

Does the China government provide Uyghurs people the same support, rights, treatments of the other citizens? No. Uyghurs have suffered from state sponsored discrimination for decades in terms of restrictions on religious freedom, language rights, cultural rights and freedom of movement. We witnessed the introduction and implementation of draconian laws that directly target Uyghurs and their way of life, ostensibly in the name of security and protection against terrorist threats. China’s Counter-Terror Law came into effect on 1 January 2016 and has already led to unparalleled abuse. Its drafting was widely condemned by the international community for its excessively broad and vague language.

For what reasons? Rather than scrutinizing the roots of resentment between ethnic groups, the government has largely chosen to lay the blame on Islam for violence committed by a tiny fraction of the population. Collective punishment is the net result, as the government has continued to push the idea that Uyghur cultural expression and religious practice naturally leads to instability, without recognizing that tolerance and genuine autonomy will act as a remedial force instead.

Has something changed after the leak of the Karakax list? Nothing has changed about the situation in East Turkistan or the harsh reality of Uyghurs in the region. This pandemic just made it even more difficult to access information on what is currently happening there. What the Karakax List has brought is clarity to the international community over the CCP’s motivations of suppressing an entire ethnic group. The Karakax List comes at the heels of two other major leaks : Xinjiang Papers (New York Times) and China Cables (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists). All these leaks together confirmed previous reporting of the severity of the situation. This now gives a solid and credible basis for our advocacy, since there is no more deniability left.

What kind of requests does the Congress receive from his expat people? And what kind of help is it possible to do or send for Uyghurs in China? WUC supports the Uyghurs in the diaspora in different ways, by organizing community events, fundraising for Uyghur refugees, help Uyghur refugees and asylum seekers on the verge of deportation; but most importantly carry on with this advocacy work in their names and represent them and the Uyghurs in East Turkistan in international fora. Unfortunately, given the situation and impossibility to access the region, there’s not anything in the short term that can be done for Uyghurs, other than our continuous efforts of advocating for the respect of their basic right. Staying informed about the situation, spreading awareness, advocating for them in our respective governments, in international institutions, holding China accountable for its crimes, writing to foreign companies and call them to stop using and profiting from Uyghur forced labor, donating to various uyghur organizations for their advocacy or research, volunteering for them, helping Uyghur refugees. These are all ways to contribute to the Uyghur cause.

Do the Uyghurs receive attention from the other muslim people around the world?  What can diplomacy and the decision makers can do to help Uyghurs? Although, Uyghurs have received some attention from the Muslim community, it hasn’t been enough, especially from the Musilm majority countries. The OIC members have been silent on this crisis. Meanwhile, they are advocating for any other muslim groups facing oppression around the world. This clearly indicates China’s soft power over these institutions. The muslim world needs to do better, and join the western countries to hold China accountable . Uyghurs need solidarity too. 


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