Prepared by: Amy Mersereau, Policy Researcher
The Uyghur Population & the First Wave
At the beginning of 2020, COVID-19 was declared a global public-health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO), and continues to spread around the world. The disease has had a devastating impact across the globe as it is fatal to many vulnerable populations, including the elderly, the immunocompromised, those unable to access health care, and many underrepresented minority populations. The Uyghurs of China are one of the minority groups vulnerable to the consequences of COVID-19.
The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority in the Xinjiang province that have experienced ongoing human rights abuse. The Chinese government established Vocational Education Centres in 2014 with the stated intention to combat religious extremism. It is estimated that there are 380 such camps across Xinjiang province. Uyghur internment camp survivors’ report that in these camps Uyghurs are being subjected to overcrowded prison like conditions, unhygienic quarters, torture, sleep deprivation, rape, and other forms of physical and psychological abuse. The risk of disease outbreaks in these conditions are extremely high, and cases of tuberculosis have been rampant. The international community, including Canada and the United States,, and human rights organizations such as the United Nations, and Amnesty International have condemned China’s treatment of the Uyghurs on the basis of human rights concerns. China’s government has denied all claims of human rights abuses and are economically pressuring many countries to support their strategy of internment.
In early July, 2020, a COVID-19 outbreak was declared in Xinjiang province, followed by mass-testing of the largely muslim population, and fears that the infections might have spread to the camps. The mass testing led to a full lockdown of the entire Kashgar area in the western region of Xinjiang. All schools were closed, the airport shut down, and a media blackout put in place. There are reports of residents being locked in their homes for more than 40-day quarantines, whether sick or not, and those who do not comply are being detained. There are now reports that Xinjiang residents are being given forced Chinese medicines to combat COVID-19. While lockdowns have come to be normal in China, other regions are not forced to take medicines, and are permitted to leave their homes for exercise and groceries.
The Uyghurs & the Second Wave
China is now firmly in the Second Wave of COVID-19, and more information about the treatment of Uyghurs is becoming available, though the picture is still unclear. While Xinjiang reported only 70 COVID-19 cases and 3 deaths in China’s first wave, they were placed under heavy lockdown measures similar to the city of Wuhan, where the pandemic was the strongest. It is unclear whether the lockdowns are a result of the actual COVID-19 cases being higher than reported, or whether the virus is being used as an excuse to impose heavy surveillance and control on the Uyghurs population.
Since the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, more information has emerged as to the oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang Region. There is ongoing pressure from the international community to have the Chinese government allow WHO delegations to screen the camps and provide the necessary medical treatment to affected Uyghurs. Chinese government officials continue to discredit Uyghur accounts, claiming that Uyghur concerns are misinformed and slanderous to China’s policies. However, no evidence exists to indicate any Uyghurs were released and there are fears that China may use the outbreaks to explain unrelated deaths.
On October 29th, 2020, a garment factory in Xinjiang province was found to have 180 positive COVID-19 cases, drawing attention to the poor living conditions where the majority Uyghur workers are sent to work after leaving the “re-education camps” as part of government-imposed “poverty alleviation” efforts. The work in these factories is mandatory, and workers live at the factory, permitted to leave for short periods every 2 weeks. The risks of COVID-19 are emphasized in these forced-work environments.
The state of Uyghurs in the internment camps during COVID-19 is still unknown, and media blackouts make it difficult to collect information about the Xinjiang region. Further action is required by the international community to ensure the wellbeing of the Uyghurs.
Recommendations to the Government of Canada
- Officially activate international legal bodies to recognize the ongoing acts of genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
- Condemn the Chinese Government for their abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
- Cooperate with allies and human rights organizations to gain access to Xinjiang region to assess the conditions of the Uyghurs in the internment camps and forced labour camps.
- Impose trade sanctions against Chinese products made in forced labour camps, and further sanctions against Chinese officials who are accountable for the violations of human rights and genocide of the Uyghurs.