Chinese authorities have been accused of harassing and intimidating the Uyghur migrant community in Australia, amid a looming threat that family members could be detained.
- DFAT has raised concerns about harassment of the Uyghur community with China
- Uyghur migrants say they are being contacted by the Chinese Government asking for personal details
- Detention camps in China have expanded rapidly in the past 12 months
The ABC has obtained text messages that appear to show Chinese authorities’ contact with Australian Uyghurs asking for their personal details, including passports, drivers licences and workplace addresses.
Uyghurs interviewed by the ABC said they had handed over their personal information out of concern that family members living in China could face consequences.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, they claimed police were using families in China to collect information about relatives overseas.
One of the Australian Uyghurs, Dawud*, said he first received contact from his family in Xinjiang in September 2017, asking him to return to China or explain to the police why he could not go back.
“I wasn’t a criminal,” Dawud said.
Dawud said he told the Chinese police: “I’m not your citizen, how can you ask such a thing?”
“[The police] said … I can just give my information, my name, and then later on I can visit the police whenever I get a chance to visit my relatives,” he said.
He said he tried to avoid returning to China by sending a letter to the police from his workplace proving he was employed.
However, he said after that the demands only intensified.
“When I sent that email [to my family], they have given that to the police and the police said I now should send my children’s and even my wife and children’s passport and their recent photos,” he said.
He said he was concerned speaking out could mean his family in China could be placed in the country’s rapidly expanding “re-education camps”.
“The main worry is still about our relatives over there … they cannot speak on their own behalf.
“It’s like mafia, it’s no different from mafia.”
Surveillance and detention
The vast autonomous region of Xinjiang in China’s north-west is home to about 24 million people, with the majority of its citizens Turkic-speaking Uyghur Muslims.
While the area is officially recognised as part of China, separatists in the region want to establish an independent “East Turkestan”, in contrast to the wishes of the Chinese Government.
In response, Human Rights Watch said Chinese authorities had forced locals to provide their voice, blood, DNA samples and eye scans.
More recently, the United Nations said it had credible evidence up to one million Uyghurs were being held in detention camps in Xinjiang.
People who have been detained in those camps have claimed they were tortured and injected with unknown substances.
An investigation by ABC News and the Australian Strategic Police Institute (ASPI) in 2018, found some detention camps in Xinjiang had expanded by more than two million square metres.
In response to questions, China’s foreign ministry referred the ABC to a government statement about terrorism, extremism and human rights protection in Xinjiang.
The statement affirmed the province had “long been an inseparable part of Chinese territory”, stating that there was a “deradicalisation effort” underway that focussed on education, rehabilitation and learning Chinese language and labour skills.
The foreign ministry did not respond to questions about allegations of foreign interference, including China’s contact with Uyghur people living in Australia.
DFAT urges people to ‘contact the police’ if needed
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade official confirmed that the Australian Government was aware of “concerning reports” that Australian residents were being asked questions by the Chinese Government.
“The Government views these issues seriously and has raised them with Chinese authorities,” she said.
“Anyone with concerns should contact the police.”
Associate Professor Michael Clarke from the Australian National University (ANU) said the persistent messages and calls amounted to “foreign interference”.
“The party is using these forms of extra territorial pressure and reaching beyond its borders as a means of preventing a certain part of the Australian community from exercising their democratic rights to speak out,” Professor Clarke said.
“This is part of a wider pattern of attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to shape the nature of the debate about China in Australia.
“Perhaps this is one of the most extreme examples of that where you have the Chinese Communist Party directly targeting a specific segment of the Australian community in order to keep them silent.
“It’s [a] much more less sophisticated and a much more blunt instrument in some ways, but it makes it no less effective.”
Huge concern about missing family
Throughout Australia, there are around 3,000 Uyghurs, with the majority of the community settled in South Australia.
There are also communities in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.
Karima Kunahun has not heard from her family in Xinjiang since July 2017, but she received a chilling phone call three weeks ago.
A friend in Xinjiang told Karima that her sister, brother and brother-in-law were all taken to a detention camp in October 2017.
She said she did not know if her young nieces and nephews were safe.
“I have been ill since the day I found out,” she said.
“I cannot stop crying everyday just thinking about how much pain my parents are in … but since I cannot get in contact with them I don’t know how they’re going.
“The person who told us about this said that the reason that my siblings are in the concentration camp is because I’m in Australia.
“I do not see myself getting better unless I know how my family is.”
‘We live like lambs waiting to be slaughtered’
Uyghur community leader Nurmuhammad Majid has represented his community for more than a decade now.
He said his work had enraged the Chinese Government and, because of it, he had not heard from his family living in China.
He said many Uyghurs were concerned speaking out might have consequences for their relatives in China.
“The Chinese Government is stretching their hands to the overseas Uyghurs, including Australian citizens … by intimidating them or harassing them,” Mr Majid said.
“People are still afraid to talk about their experiences or sufferings of their family members … because they still have so many family members back in [Xinjiang province].
“One of the community members … described the situation … ‘we live like lambs waiting to be slaughtered’.
“Some people who’ve returned from China last year … still fear about talking about their experiences … they say ‘I [have] still got my parents’.”
Mr Majid said the Australian Government needed to increase pressure on China about the human rights situation in Xinjiang.
“We haven’t seen our Government take any active steps to criticise the Chinese Government,” he said.
“We need to ask our Government to understand its own values. This is a liberal democracy that defends human rights.
“We want to make sure that the Uyghur community members living in Australia are safe, are not intimidated, are not interfered by foreign governments.”
*Names have been changed at the request of sources to protect them and their families
By Joshua Boscaini