Australia

Australian father separated from baby son by Uighur crackdown speaks out

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Revelations an 18-month-old is stuck in China's Xinjiang province come as it is learned efforts by Australian officials to visit the region have been repeatedly rebuffed.

Caught up in the midst of a complex humanitarian and diplomatic issue between China and Australia is an 18-month-old baby boy.

His 28-year-old father Sam has never had the chance to meet him – and he is afraid he never will.

"Every time I see families … fathers holding their babies. It’s just so hard," he told SBS News through tears. 

"I don’t want anyone to have the same experience that I’ve been going through."

"Your own son, your own blood … he doesn’t even know who his dad is."

Sam believes identifying himself would put his baby and wife at risk.
Sam believes identifying himself would put his baby and wife at risk.
SBS News

There are growing fears for several Australians of Uighur background trapped in China’s north-west, with surveillance and censorship making it difficult to know what has happened to them.

SBS News reported last month at least 10 of them had disappeared and may be held in controversial re-education controversial camps in  Xinjiang, where the majority of Uighurs (a Muslim Turkic minority) are based.

Sam has lived in Australia for 10 years and is an Australian citizen. He met his wife in 2015. Both are Uighurs and they returned to Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, for their wedding.

In April 2017, his wife – who was five months pregnant - again returned to Xinjiang to have her mother’s support during her pregnancy. The couple thought she would be safe, but he has not seen her since then.

Sam
Sam shows SBS News journalist Jessica Washington photographs of the baby son he has never met.
SBS News

 “I never thought this kind of thing would happen… I wasn’t even able to be there when my son was born,” he said.

"My wife, maybe she was struggling at that time and I wasn't there."

“All I want to do is hold my baby, and know the feeling of how heavy my baby is.”

All I want to do is hold my baby, and know the feeling of how heavy my baby is.

Sam’s wife had her passport confiscated by Chinese authorities and when their son was six months old she was detained in a camp in Xinjiang.

Upon her release, she told Sam she was told she would have to report to police warned she would be detained again – and the baby would be adopted by a Han Chinese family.

The couple hasn't had any direct contact since.

Sam’s applications to have his baby granted Australian citizenship were twice rejected, but earlier this month, the child formally received citizenship, after an appeal at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

His lawyer Michael Bradley told SBS News: “It took a very long time to get citizenship, much longer than it should have. It has been frustrating for us, and extremely agonizing for our client.”

Lawyer Michael Bradley worked to secure citizenship for Sam's baby.
Lawyer Michael Bradley worked to secure citizenship for Sam's baby.
SBS News

In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) confirmed they are providing consular assistance to Sam.

“DFAT consular officials are providing consular assistance to an Australian man whose family are in China,” the statement said.

“Consular assistance may include maintaining contact with and support to families or nominated contacts, and liaison with local authorities.”

But the situation in Xinjiang comes with some unique challenges – many Uighurs around the world report they have lost contact with their relatives.

It is impossible to know for certain whether that is because they have been detained, if their messages are being censored, or if they have been forced to cut off contact.

At a Senate hearing on Thursday, Graham Fletcher from DFAT’s North-Asia division revealed requests for official visits by Australia have been rejected – the last visit was June 2016.

Beijing says there are no camps, only vocational training centres.
Beijing says there are no camps, only vocational training centres.
Supplied

“Our embassy has sought to travel to Xinjiang on several occasions, our ambassador is seeking a visit,” he said.

“Access has not been granted. We have asked for official visits.”

Human rights lawyer David Manne from Melbourne-based Refugee Legal said many Uighur families like Sam’s have been caught up in the crisis.

“The difficulty of gaining access by the Australian government to Australians in another country is a matter of profound concern,” he said.

Sam hopes officials will be able to provide a passport to his son – and a visa for his wife.

“I’m not going to give up, I will see my son, and I will see my wife.”

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