Sat, Dec 01, 2018 - Page 9 News List

‘A community in unbelievable pain’: the terror and sorrow of Australia’s Uighurs

Australian permanent residents have disappeared into China’s internment camps and others are being made to report to Chinese authorities from Sydney

By Kate Lyons  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Lance Liu

Keeping a watchful eye on the door, Arzu begins telling her story. Although she is in her workplace in the center of Sydney in the middle of a weekday, every time anyone walks in, she tenses.

She warns that if any Chinese enters the building, we must stop the interview.

If anyone asks, we must tell them the Guardian is writing a feature about her business, she said.

She will tell her story, but she will not use her real name. Arzu is a pseudonym.

Arzu, 52, is an Australian citizen and has been in the country for almost two decades. The reason for her fear is that she is belongs to the Uighur Muslim minority ethnic group, from Xinjiang, a far western region of China.

An estimated 1 million Muslims are currently held in detention camps in Xinjiang by the Chinese government as part of a sweeping crackdown on the rights of the minority group.

The authorities in Beijing call the camps “vocational training centers,” saying those detained within them are taught language, culture and vocational skills.

In August, the UN called for the immediate release of people from the camps, saying they had received many credible reports that 1 million ethnic Uighurs were held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”

Despite living thousands of kilometers from Xinjiang, in the safety of Australia, Arzu fears the long arm of the Chinese state. Primarily she is frightened for her family back in China and believes four of her relatives have been imprisoned — but she is also frightened for herself.

A few months ago a man came into her business, who she is convinced was a Chinese spy. He asked aggressive questions, probing for her opinion on the situation in Xinjiang, her political views and the ethnicity of her employees.

“The way he presented was just not normal. We think it was a test,” she said.

She jokes that the room might be bugged, but it is clear she is only half-joking.

“We can’t speak openly. They might hurt my family,” she said.

Among the Uighur diaspora scattered across the world, news of the situation in Xinjiang is hard to come by. Many live in countries closer to China — such as Kazakhstan and Turkey — but one of the largest populations is in Australia, which an estimated 3,000 Uighurs call home.

The Guardian spoke to nearly a dozen Uighurs living in Australia. They all told stories of pain, fear and separation, most using pseudonyms.

For the diaspora, contacting their family members is fraught with fear, as communication on WeChat and phone calls is monitored by the Chinese government.

As a result, if they do ever ask about the fate of relatives, they have to do so in coded ways.

“We don’t say ‘camps,’ we say ‘the hospital’ or ‘school,’” said Alim, who believes his father has been imprisoned.

This is how Gul, 25, learned her father had been taken to a detention center. Gul is an Australian citizen and her parents are Australian permanent residents, but both went back to China for a visit late last year. That was the last time she saw them.

“I called my mom and she was crying. I thought my grandparents had died. She said: ‘Your dad is in the hospital.’ Immediately I understood, she can’t tell me he was captured,” Alim said.

Her mother’s passport was confiscated, preventing her from returning to Australia.

Gul has written to her local lawmaker in western Sydney asking for help getting her parents back to Australia, but has not received a reply.

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