Labour camps and sterilisation: Uyghur people’s persecution recalls the Holocaust

Image credit: Twitter drone film

By Lianne Kolirin

The plight of the Uyghur people has struck a chord with Britain’s Jewish community, with a leading British newspaper dedicating a front page story to their cause.

Under the headline “Chilling Echoes”, this week’s Jewish News has devoted its entire front page to urging its readership to speak up for China’s Muslim ethnic minority.

The Turkic-speaking Uyghurs — who are Sunni Muslims — live mostly in northwestern China  in the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. A small number also live in the Central Asian republics.

When the region became autonomous in the 1950s, large numbers of Han (ethnic Chinese) moved into the area, accounting for about 40 per cent of the population by the late 20th century.

Over the years tensions grew between the two groups, peaking with riots in 2009 that left 200  dead. The violence, which included knife attacks and suicide bombers, increased, leading the government to unleash a crackdown in 2017.

Cameras, checkpoints and police surveillance were introduced and up to a million Uyghurs were indefinitely detained in “political training centres” to combat “extremism”. Reports of cultural genocide have increased since then with exiles recounting stories of mass detention and gross human rights abuses.

The Jewish News featured an illustration of US Customs and Border Protection recently seizing a 13-tonne shipment of weaves and other beauty products believed to have been made from human hair. According to the US authorities, the shipment originated in Xinjiang, China — home to the 11 million Uyghurs, an ethnic Muslim minority with their own language and traditions.

While there have long been reports of forced labour camps and widespread “re-education”, news also emerged last month of enforced sterilisation of Uyghur women.

Footage, believed to be about a year old, has also been circulating on social media of hundreds of blindfolded Uyghurs waiting to be loaded on to trains. The video, probably shot secretly by a drone, shows hundreds of people huddled together while dozens of uniformed Chinese guards watch on. Though their destination cannot be confirmed because of the difficulty of independent media access in China, insiders believe they are being transferred to forced labour camps.

The Jewish News reported that Alistair Carmichael MP, vice-chairman, human rights, of the All-Party Parliamentary China Group, said countries around the world “need to hold the Chinese government to account for their brutal suppression of the Uyghurs”, who are understood to be held in 1,200 camps.

The News ran an editorial comment, headlined: “This moment hits our rawest nerve.” It compared news of the hair shipment to other turning points, such as three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washing up on a Turkish beach in 2015 and George Floyd dying in May this year as a police officer knelt on his neck.

The editorial said: “Huge camps? Forced labour? Hair shorn then sold? That this touches such a raw nerve should surprise nobody. Yes, this is China we’re talking about, but be that as it may, we are certainly not powerless in this fight.”

Rahima Mahmut, the UK project director for the World Uyghur Congress, told the Religion Media Centre that the Jewish community had been “quite vocal” in its support of her people’s plight.

“There is a lot of resonance and similarities to what happened during the Holocaust,” she said. “This is probably the biggest incarceration of people since the moment the world said ‘never again’.”

The issue, she believes, has gained heightened attention in recent weeks as China has come under increased scrutiny over its role in the coronavirus outbreak and its full-scale assault on democracy in Hong Kong.

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (Ipac), an international cross-party group of legislators working towards reform on how democratic countries approach China, has also worked hard to highlight the cause, she said.

Last month, China’s foreign ministry described the claims about enforced population control as “baseless” and showing “ulterior motives”.

In recent weeks, groups of exiled Uyghurs have submitted evidence to the International Criminal Court, calling for an investigation into senior Chinese officials for genocide and other  crimes against humanity.

Submitted on behalf of the “East Turkestan Government in Exile and the East Turkestan National Awakening Movement”, the filing claims Uyghurs were unlawfully deported from Tajikistan and Cambodia to Xinjiang where they were subjected to imprisonment, torture and forced sterilisations, among other crimes.

The issue is one that the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has long been campaigning about. Its secretary-general, Harun Khan, told the Religion Media Centre: “The MCB has consistently been calling on the UK government and politicians to take action against the Chinese government over the ethnic cleansing of Uyghur Muslims. The situation in East Turkestan is deeply harrowing, from the forced sterilisation of women to the detention without trial in concentration camps of over a million people.

“Human rights must be at the forefront of our foreign policy. At the 2019 general election, the MCB called upon all political parties to stand up against the Chinese government in support of the Uyghur Muslims, and the UK government’s reluctance to take meaningful action thus far is disappointing. Sanctions against China must be imposed, and strong diplomatic power used before Uyghur Muslims are subject to total destruction at the hands of the Chinese government.”

Edwin Shuker, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “They are being forced to eat pork, have their hair cut and be sterilised and the world is keeping silent. It’s within each one of us, that memory of how the world kept silent.”

“This is further evidence of the systematic persecution of the Uyghur minority in China,” he said. “We have written to the UK government with our concerns over their treatment and ask that the government uses its position at the United Nations to raise these matters on the international stage, and with the Chinese government.”

Someone who has decided to go further than words is Majid Nawaz, an LBC presenter and founder of the think tank Quilliam. On Wednesday Mr Nawaz started a “silent hunger strike”.

Mr Nawaz recalled being radicalised by the horrors of Srebrenica 25 years ago. His actions led to five years in prison, after which he emerged dedicated to “peace and human rights for all”. He has urged his Twitter followers to sign a petition calling on the UK government to impose sanctions on China over the human rights abuse.

He tweeted: “Horror from 25 years ago is back. Genocide against Uyghur Muslims is perpetrated right now by the Chinese Communist Party in East Turkestan. Once again, this genocide is but an inconvenience for the world. I cannot let this happen yet again.”

He says he will remain on hunger strike until the British government agrees to debate the genocide.

Earlier this year the US Senate approved a bill to sanction Chinese government officials responsible for forced labour camps in the region. Urging Boris Johnson and the government to follow suit, Mr Nawaz wrote: “The US is showing us the way. We must pass UK legislation to prevent goods produced with Uyghur Muslim slave labour from reaching our markets. Magnitsky Act sanctions should be explored. At the bare minimum, the UK must recognise the ongoing genocide