Australia

Fearful Australian Uighurs demand answers over China’s 'internment camps'

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China is claiming its camps in the country’s north-west may not be permanent – but the announcement has done little to placate Uighurs, who say their relatives are being forcibly detained.

Sydney woman Zulfia Erk knows she's safe - but thoughts of her siblings back in China keep the Uighur woman up at night.

“My own siblings, my brothers, were taken to the camps, all five of them,” she told SBS News.

“I have a lot of issues because of anxiety. I always struggle with helplessness, and I feel guilty.”

Ms Erk has not spoken to her brothers in months.
Ms Erk has not spoken to her brothers in months.
SBS News.

Ms Erk is an Australian permanent resident and is one of the many Uighurs demanding answers about what happened to their missing relatives.

Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic minority who primarily practice Islam and in In Xinjiang, a region which borders many Central Asian nations, the Chinese government has set up what they call vocational training centres, to teach Uighurs Mandarin and new skills.

But many human rights activists have branded the centres as internment camps, where Uighurs are forced to cut off contact with their family, and renounce their faith. There are even reports some Uighurs have been tortured.

Ms Erk  said she had not spoken to her brothers for months, but received news through a relative that all of them have been detained by Chinese authorities and taken to one of the camps.

She also does not know the location of her great niece and nephew, who she said have had their parents detained in a camp.

“They are aged one and three; we don’t know what happened to them," she said.

"We don’t know the whereabouts of these kids.”

Ms Erk's three-year-old grand nephew.
Ms Erk's three-year-old grand nephew.
SBS News.

In a rare public statement, Chinese officials announced the camps will close when needed.

“The education training centres are not like some media outlets say, that they abuse the students, or that they restrict freedom,” Shohrat Zakir, the deputy party chief of Xinjiang, told media.

“Some voices say Xinjiang has concentration camps, or whatever, re-education camps. These comments are pure fabrications made up by some people.”

Mr Zakir is also of Uighur heritage, and said there have been no violent attacks recently in Xinjiang because of the Chinese Communist Party's counter-terror measures.

Mr Zakir is also of Uighur heritage.
Mr Zakir is also of Uighur heritage.
SBS News.

His media briefing was the first time foreign media have been permitted to ask questions about the situation in Xinjiang.

“If one day, society doesn’t need it anymore, the education training centres will close,” he said.

But for Ms Erk, the announcement just raises even more questions.

“What does that mean? I really don’t understand what are their expectations or criteria,” she said.

Many Uighurs around the world have shared photos of their missing relatives and the United Nations believes about one million of them are trapped in camps.

There are reports 17 of them are Australians, but the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has not been permitted to visit the region since 2016.

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