Norway: Automated calls from China embassy spook Uighur diaspora

Members of community, many of whom have family in Xinjiang, say they feel harassed by continuous phone calls.

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Members of the Uighur community in Norway protest against internment camps in Xinjiang, where more than one million Uighurs are allegedly being held [Kiyya Baloch/Al Jazeera]

Oslo, Norway – Sixteen years ago, Tina, a Uighur from Xinjiang, settled in Norway.

She is now a Norwegian citizen but still longs for her home, which she calls East Turkestan, a term often used by diaspora communities.

She recently attended an anti-China protest on October 1, Chinese national day, in Oslo to rally against alleged human rights violations, religious oppression and internment camps targeting the Uighur minority.

After that, she says she started receiving automated calls from the Chinese embassy.

“I received over a dozen calls. I didn’t know who that was. Later, my father explained it to me the calls were from the Chinese embassy,” she told Al Jazeera.

Like many diaspora Uighurs, she still has family back at home – and worries about them constantly. 

“I fear for my close family members in China. I don’t know anything, if they are even alive or not. It’s so difficult to know,” Tina said.

There are about 2,500 Uighurs, a mostly Muslim minority, in Norway.

Most Uighurs hail from Xinjiang, an autonomous Chinese territory that faces increased allegations of abuse.

About half of Xinjiang’s population are Uighurs, an ethnically and culturally Turkic people with roots in East and Central Asia.

Other communities live in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Adiljan Abdurihim, secretary of the Norwegian Uyghur Community, said 30 people have told the organisation that they received similar automated calls between August and October, from phone numbers connected to the Chinese embassy in Oslo.

Abdurihim told Al Jazeera that he believes the number of people who received the calls to be higher, because some would likely not inform the Norwegian Uyghur Committee fearing repercussions.

Diaspora Uighurs are under surveillance in Europe, he said, with activists in the Netherlands, Belgium and France having reported pressure tactics from Chinese embassies.

The Chinese embassy in Oslo denied making the calls, saying they were part of a scam. A spokesman added that the embassy has previously issued warnings about scammers who can display their phone numbers as the embassy.

But experts said China has a history of surveillance.

“China has been monitoring exile Tibetan Uighur communities for many years,” Adrian Zenz, a Germany-based researcher who focuses on Xinjiang and Tibet, told Al Jazeera.

Zenz said in the past, silence was rewarded.

“If you didn’t speak out and didn’t do anything political, you were left alone and many Uighurs for that reason, who were very active, avoided any engagement,” he said. “But the Chinese, by targeting everybody, have eliminated the benefit of not speaking out.”

Referring to the reports of automated calls in Norway, he explained: “These things in a current situation when the Uighurs are already severely affected adds a great amount of psychological pressure and it increases the intimidation.”

International organisations and key world players have said they are concerned by mounting reports of mass internment camps for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and the practices inside them.

China has acknowledged the existence of these camps, but says they are part of “counterterror” efforts.

“China has been increasing the pressure it places on overseas Uighur communities, and there are a number of precedents for Chinese embassies being directly involved,” said Andrew Small, a transatlantic fellow with German Marshall Fund Asia programme.

“Sweden, for instance, expelled a Chinese diplomat for espionage activities directed at the Uighur diaspora.”

In Norway, a sense of fear is rising, especially those with family still in China.

“They are not actually using threatening words but how they demand me to collect my documents in one hour is horrifying,” claimed Bergen-based Nadir Abla, a 22-year-old student and activist who arrived as a refugee in 2015, who also received the calls.

“Everybody in East Turkestan is in danger. It doesn’t matter if you’re politically active or not.”

People who receive these automated calls are connected to a pre-recorded voice message, which asks for personal details. For more information, the voice says, the receiver should press “five”. They are then advised to meet in person at the embassy to retrieve a document.

“They are actually not saying, ‘I will kill you’. But I don’t have any document, and they’re saying I need to collect it, in one hour, from the embassy,” said Abla.

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Nadir Abla, an activist, arrived in Norway as a refugee in 2015. He now runs awareness campaigns on human rights violations [Kiyya Baloch/Al Jazeera]

Maya Wang, a China-based researcher at Human Rights Watch, said while these calls are unlikely to be part of a Chinese campaign to monitor the Uighur diaspora, the concerns associated with the calls reflect a deep sense of fear. Uighurs abroad are terrified by the Chinese government’s arbitrary rule and its track record of intimidation and harassment.

But members of the Uighur community maintain that this is part of a broader effort to try and silence them. 

“I get very scared of such calls, because I have no documents in the embassy and they want me to visit the embassy to retrieve it,” said Tina.

The Norwegian Uighur Community said it has informed the Norwegian Police Security Service and called on all Uighurs who have received the calls to report to their local police station.

However, none of the people Al Jazeera interviewed said they had contacted the police.

“Many of my friends have had received such calls but nobody spoke. When I mentioned it to friends in Sarpsborgi, an urbanized city out of Oslo, everybody started saying, ‘I have received it, too’,” said Naz Gul (not her real name), an activist who arrived in Norway nine years ago and has two sisters back in China.

“I stopped contacting my elder sister after she was forced to attend a course, only because she wore hijab and travelled to Turkey.”

Abla, the young student, showed Al Jazeera the list of calls he has received.

The phone numbers did belong to the Chinese Embassy in Oslo.

However, the embassy said: “We’ve also experienced ourselves. We were called up by fake calls. But it seems that now what we can actually do to solve the problem is quite limited.”

Source: Al Jazeera