The Stream

Coronavirus: Are China’s Uighurs being put at risk?

Rights advocates warn of insufficient action to stop spread of disease among communities they say are facing repression.

On Tuesday, 19 May at 19:30 GMT:
China is trying to walk a line between quelling scattered outbreaks of coronavirus and restoring a semblance of day-to-day normality. But concerns are mounting over the possible effects of the virus on hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims, many of whom are being held in so-called “re-education” camps that United Nations experts say are in flagrant disregard of international human rights law.

Uighur rights activists, as well as the relatives of those interned in the western province of Xinjiang, say cramped, unhygienic conditions in the camps allow for the untrammelled spread of coronavirus. As COVID-19 cases in China increased earlier this year they urged the World Health Organization (WHO) to seek a fact-finding mission to the region. Chinese government officials responded by downplaying the risks of coronavirus in the Muslim-majority region, saying the vast majority of those in the camps had since “graduated” and been released. The UN estimates about one million people are being held within the facilities, and UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has urged China to grant her and a team of monitors “unfettered” access to Xinjiang during a trip that is being planned for later this year.

As China tries to repair an economy dented by the coronavirus outbreak, Uighur advocates are now worried that authorities are resuming job placements for Uighurs, moving them far from their families and homes. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute alleges that authorities have transferred thousands of Uighur Muslims to work in factories producing goods for some of the world’s biggest brands, while keeping them under close watch. Authorities in Xinjiang, as well as companies accused of benefitting from forced labour, say the report is a smear campaign – highlighting the stark divisions over the treatment of Uighurs and the rights they hold in China. 

On Monday’s episode of The Stream, we will be joined by Uighur voices to hear what is at stake for the wider community as China focuses on its fight against the pandemic. Join the conversation.

On this episode of The Stream, we are joined by:
Jewher Ilham, @JewherIlham
Uighur rights activist

Rayhan Asat, @RayhanAsat

Mamatjan Juma, @NewsMemet
Deputy Director, Uighur service at Radio Free Asia

Read more:
Why are Central Asian countries so quiet on Uighur persecution? – Al Jazeera
China ‘war on terror’ uproots Uighur families, leaked data shows – Al Jazeera