Uighur-Australians welcome global condemnation of China's detention centres

Fatimah Abdulghafur and a detention centre. Source: SBS News, Getty

Australia is one of 22 countries that have signed the first joint letter on China’s Uighur detention centres to the UN Human Rights Council.

Local Uighurs have welcomed Australia’s participation in a letter signed by 22 countries condemning China’s treatment of its Muslim ethnic minorities.

The letter – dated 8 July – was signed by Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Japan, and sent to the president of the United Nations' Human Rights Council.

“We call on China to uphold its national laws and international obligations and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief in Xinjiang and across China,” the letter said.

After years of tireless campaigning, Sydney woman Fatimah Abdulghafur is finally feeling optimistic.

“It makes me hopeful that what we are doing is working, that the world is finally seeing what is happening,” she told SBS News.

“This makes me feel safer, and proud of Australia. I feel happy for Uighur people. The Australian voice can count.”

Sydney woman Fatimah Abdulghafur has not heard from her mother, father, and siblings for almost three years.
Sydney woman Fatimah Abdulghafur has not heard from her mother, father, and siblings for almost three years.
SBS News

Ms Abdulghafur has not heard from her mother, father, and siblings for almost three years – a situation experienced by many Uighurs living abroad.

The UN estimated around one million Uighurs – a Turkic ethnic minority – are being detained in camps in China’s north-west.

The letter is less significant than a formal statement read out at the Human Rights Council, or a resolution, but it still puts an embarrassing spotlight on China’s human rights record.

“These countries have decided they don’t want to live in a world where China calls all the shots… these governments are making the decision that they are willing to irk Beijing,” China Director for Human Rights Watch Sophie Richardson told SBS News.

“Beijing clearly thought it could not only get away with this, but that they could get others to support what it is doing in Xinjiang. They have thought they wouldn’t face scrutiny.”

Arslan Hidayat is an Australian living in Turkey – his father-in-law is a famous Uighur comedian, who has not been seen since November last year.

“The message for so long has been that politicians feel for us, but the economic relations with China are the priority,” he said.

“This letter is a tiny step, but Australia could have done more – and they could have done it earlier.”

Arslan Hidayat and his father-in-law Adil Mijit.
Arslan Hidayat and his father-in-law Adil Mijit.
Supplied to SBS News

Mr Hidayat may be disappointed at past inaction but he’s hopeful that the situation is finally changing.

“The reality has been that countries don’t want to stand up to China, so no one has stepped up to take that lead,” he said.

“But hopefully there is momentum now, we have to see what these countries will do when China responds.”

The Chinese government has consistently said foreign media is misrepresenting what are simply vocational training centres, which guide people away from extremism.

Government spokespeople have also denied claims that Uighur children are being separated from their parents.

Demands to grant 'meaningful access'

One of the main demands on the letter is for China to allow “meaningful access to Xinjiang”, something that has long been denied to many countries, including Australia.

At a Senate hearing in February, DFAT revealed requests for official visits have been consistently rejected for the past three years.

Canberra-based Uighur activist Nurgul Sawut told SBS News collective pressure could change the situation.

“Australia is on board, and I’m pleased, it seems that the government is listening.”

“I don’t know where my family is, if they are in a camp or if they are safe. But, we can see that action is forming.”

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