Seventeen Australian Uyghurs have reportedly been detained in China, as the nation continues its crackdown on ethnic minority Muslims. The Australians, it is believed, are being kept under house arrest, in prison, or in the country’s infamous detention camps, which Beijing claims are “re-education” centres in Xinjiang.
The detention came to light after family members of these 17 people – 15 permanent Australian residents and two on spouse visas – spoke to Nurgul Sawut, an advocate for Uyghurs in Australia. It is being said that the individuals had travelled to China to meet their relatives, but did not return.
Advocates for Australia’s 3,000-strong Uyghur community are calling on the government in Canberra to secure the release of the detainees. In 2018, Sawut presented the cases of nine Australian residents believed to be detained in China to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat). Only one of those people has since been freed and returned to Australia.
“Our community members feel let down,” Sawut told the Guardian. “The language [the department] is using is very dire. The Australian government is basically saying we can’t do anything right now. They say ‘We are talking to our Chinese counterparts’. What does that mean exactly? When I met Dfat in December, I said ‘that’s not a good enough answer for us. As an Australian embassy you need to do more to locate these people, to tell us if they’re alive or dead.’”
Dilmurat Tursun, 52, is among those missing. The Australian permanent resident had lived in Sydney since 2011. In 2017 he took a trip to China with his wife, Dilbar Abdurahaman. Once inside the country, family members say their passports were confiscated and pair were unable to return home.
In 2018 Tursun disappeared. He is believed to have been taken into a detention centre. His wife is trapped in China under house arrest and lives in fear that she too will be taken to a camp.
“I feel desperate and a sense of hopelessness,” said Abdurahaman’s sister Zulfiyah Kurash. “The only crime we can think of [that led to his imprisonment] is that he came to Australia and has relatives here.”
Ali Ahmed, 29, runs a business in Sydney. This, as well as his young family, keeps him busy but the crisis in Xinjiang dominates his life.
“We are a community in unbelievable pain,” he said to the Guardian. “We are always meeting together to talk about the situation.”
At the same time, members of Australia’s Uyghur population have reported serious harassment by Chinese authorities on Australian soil, including intimidating phone calls and requests to send over personal data, with the threat of reprisals against family if they do not comply.
The Chinese government is conducting a mass, systematic campaign of human rights violations against Uyghurs, who are largely Muslims, in Xinjiang in northwestern China.
With unprecedented levels of control over religious practices, local authorities have effectively outlawed Islam in the region and they are currently running two massive “re-education” programmes. The first is a forcible internment programme, under which an estimated million Uyghurs have been indefinitely detained without due process of law and where Uyghurs are forced to eat pork. The second programme involves mandatory day and evening “education sessions.”