When news broke that senior officials in China were saying 90% of Uighursdetained in Xinjiang’s notorious detention centres had been released, Nurgul Sawut’s phone started going crazy.
“My Whatsapp, my Signal, my Facebook, everyone was tagging me in their posts,” said Sawut, a Uighur community leader based in Canberra. “Everyone started reacting. They were saying: ‘If 90%, where are my relatives, where are my family and friends?’ We’re not seeing any of those people in the community, who are you releasing?”
The statement on Wednesday came during a briefing by senior officials in the far-western region of Xinjiang, home to the Uighur ethnic minority group, who have been detained in huge numbers in detention facilities over the last few years.
China continues to insist that the centres, which are believed to hold at least one million people, are vocational training facilities and has conducted a propaganda blitz about them, taking journalists on tours and releasing upbeat videos showing inmates in lessons, participating in cultural activities and working in factory jobs. At a briefing, Alken Tuniaz, vice-chairman of the Xinjianggovernment, said “most” detainees of the internment camps had been released, though he refused to say exactly how many had been incarcerated, saying the situation was “fluid” as people “come and go”.
Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the regional government, said about 90% of the people who had been released from the centres had gone on to find suitable jobs and were earning “considerable money”. The reaction to the briefing from the Uighur diaspora community, including the roughly 3,000 in Australia,was immediate and angry. Most Uighur-Australians, says Sawut, are missing at least one family member and live in fear that their entire family will be taken.
“This is like a grief,” said Sawut, who has roughly 50 relatives whom she believes are detained in camps in Xinjiang. “Everyone is so anxious, [wondering] what will come next. Boom, this came up for our community and it’s like a kick in the guts. It made us angry, upset.”
People started sharing pictures on social media of their loved ones, who were still missing, with the hashtag: “ProveThe90”.
Fatimah Abdulghafur, a Uighur based in Sydney who has not had contact with her entire family for over a year and believes that at least her brother and father are in the camps, saw the news on Facebook where the reaction was overwhelming.
“Everybody was responding very negatively, they were all commenting on Facebook, sending each other messages, saying ‘This isn’t true, if it’s true where is my person? My father is still missing, my friend is still missing.’” Arslan Mijit Hidayat, an Australian Uighur living in Istanbul, who lost contact with his father-in-law, the prominent Uighur comedian, Adil Mijit, last November, said he thought the news couldn’t be true.
“I thought: it’s a lie. I still think it’s a lie. It means that nine out of 10 people have been released, and from talking to people, my close friends, none of their family members have been released.”
However, he says, that China might simply be fast and loose with their definition of “released”.
“What did [Zakir] say? That they had gained employment. What is their definition of ‘gainful employment’?… So there could be some truth to the 90% – moved out of concentration camps into labour camps or factories where they are working for next to nothing or working to survive.” “Even if they have been really released and are at home, what kind of situation are they in? Are they under 24 hour surveillance? Until my father-in-law gets his passport back and can leave and come to live with us in Turkey, I don’t consider that he could be free.”