After years of publicly criticizing China’s collective punishment of the Uighurs, a millions-strong ethnic and religious minority community, the U.S. is now finally considering tough new sanctions on Beijing. But Washington’s bid to create international opposition to the Chinese crackdown faces long odds ― and for now, some of the U.S.’s own allies continue to support China’s campaign.
Late last month, two plainclothes men in the United Arab Emirates, a close U.S. partner, arrested Abuduljilili Supi, a 27-year-old Uighur man from China, after afternoon prayers. Three days later, Supi called his wife and told her he was in a UAE detention facility and believed he was going to be sent back to China, where the government has placed an estimated 1 million people, most of them Uighurs, in secretive internment camps over the past two years.
Supi urged his wife to leave the UAE, and his family is now desperate to ensure he isn’t sent away, his brother Abdul Mijit told HuffPost. They don’t know whether he has already been deported and they’ve had no luck getting answers from UAE authorities.
“If he is returned to China, I cannot imagine his life,” Mijit said.
Beijing’s finely honed ability to persuade key countries to help with its dirty work will be one of the main hurdles to the U.S. and United Nations’ new efforts to open up the camps to investigators and ultimately end the massive human rights violations. The Chinese government’s years of success in cultivating business relationships and behind-the-scenes channels with foreign officials, particularly in autocratic contexts like the UAE, will likely help it avoid the kind of revelations and effective public pressure that might force a real change in policy.
The UAE ambassador in Washington did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the case.
China’s ruling Communist Party has viewed Uighurs and other minority non-Han Chinese groups in the northwestern autonomous region of Xinjiang as a threat for decades, treating them as potential separatist or extremist militants. These minorities have been subject to wholesale surveillance and government intimidation after isolated members of their communities carried out terror attacks. Thousands of Uighurs have fled China in recent years, aiming to get to Turkey because of their Turkic ethnic background or heading to Southeast and Central Asia, Europe, Australia and the U.S.
Fearing their platform to criticize China and share what’s happening in the tightly controlled Uighur homeland of Xinjiang, China has successfully pressured multiple countries to deport Uighurs who have traveled abroad back to China.
Caving to Chinese pressure, such as Beijing’s sudden changes to Uighurs’ permissions to be abroad, many of those nations have used their own security services to round up Chinese minorities. Cambodia sent Uighurs back in 2009. Malaysia did so in 2012. Thailand followed suit in 2015. And in 2017, close U.S. ally Egypt detained more than 100 Uighurs and deported dozens to China.
To send people back under these circumstances is to knowingly subject them to life in what experts deem an “open-air prison.” Practically every Uighur family now has at least one member locked up for “re-education” and those outside the camps are closely monitored through tactics that go as far as placing officials in their homes for extended periods of time.
“Authorities should realize that Uighurs forced back to China disappear into a black hole,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, when Thailand was mulling the fate of Uighurs discovered in a remote jungle camp. “Beijing has a duty to provide public order, but it has no business trying to compel other governments to violate international law, or violate the rights of ethnic minorities within its own borders.”
European countries are less vulnerable to bullying from China and more concerned about international rights standards, if for no other reason than to prevent public backlash. Yet even as they host thousands of Uighurs, they don’t know to handle China’s reach and fixation on the issue, either.
Earlier this year, Germany sent a 23-year-old Uighur man back to China by mistake, and Bulgaria denied asylum to five Uighurs who had entered the country from Turkey, which meant they could be deported. In September, Berlin officially decided not to send Uighurs back to China, even if they are in Germany without legal status ― a policy Sweden adopted that month as well. Still, with foreigner-bashing conservatives gaining power across the European Union, the continent’s chances of forming a united front on the issue are dim.
Firm U.S. leadership on combating the crackdown might turn all that around. But the early signs aren’t promising. It’s hard enough to win support from governments like the UAE that are in constant consultation with Washington. It’ll be an even greater feat to win over other nations that have their own reasons to defy the U.S., drive a hard bargain, or weaken international norms around human rights.
“Given the situation in Xinjiang, we are concerned by media reports regarding Uighur individuals facing possible forced return to China,” a State Department official told HuffPost in response to a query about Supi’s case, speaking on background per department policy.
“We call on all governments to grant [U.N.] access to determine eligibility of these Uighur individuals for international protection and recommendation for a durable solution,” the official wrote. “We also urge relevant authorities to conduct a transparent investigation and to provide appropriate protection to any of these individuals who may be subject to torture or persecution if returned against their will.”
The official said the U.S. wants China to provide due process to Uighurs forcibly returned to the country and to broadly end policies restricting their religious freedom and other rights.
Asked whether U.S. officials had specifically talked to their UAE counterparts on Supi’s behalf, the official said they would not divulge the details of private diplomatic conversations.
So for now, families like his remain in anxious limbo.
“What did we do?” asked his brother Mijit. “To be a Uighur person is a crime in China and the world ... why can’t we live free?”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.