Revealed: 17 Australian residents believed detained in China's Uighur crackdown
Exclusive: Activists urge embassy to tell us if they’re alive or dead’ amid claims of inaction by Canberra
Seventeen Australian residents are believed to be under house arrest, in prison or detained in China’s secretive “re-education” centres in Xinjiang, the Guardian can reveal.
The 17 cases 15 Australian permanent residents and two on spouse visas have been collected by Nurgul Sawut, an advocate for Uighurs in Australia, through interviews with their family members.
The individuals are believed to have been detained while on trips to China visiting relatives. Many have children or spouses who are Australian citizens.
It is difficult to confirm their fates, given the secretive nature of the camps, but Sawut believes one of the group is in prison, four are under house arrest, and the remaining 12 are in detention centres.
Advocates for Australia’s 3,000-strong Uighur community are calling on the government in Canberra to secure the release of the detainees. Shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, has urged the government to investigate.
At the same time, members of Australia’s Uighur population have reported serious harassment by Chinese authorities on Australian soil, including intimidating phone calls and requests to send over personal data, with the threat of reprisals against family if they do not comply.
Penny Wong, Labor’s spokeswoman on foreign affairs, said her party was “particularly concerned” by reports of Uighurs who were Australian residents being detained. She said: “Engagement with China is very important to Australia but, as with any other country, it never means we abandon our values, or our sovereignty.”
In response to a list of questions about the detention of the 17 residents and the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Canberra said: “It is a wish shared by people of all ethnic groups for Xinjiang to maintain enduring social stability, since it serves their fundamental interests. The series of measures implemented in Xinjiang are meant to improve stability, development, solidarity and people’s livelihood, crack down on and prevent ethnic separatist activities and violent and terrorist crimes, safeguard national security, and protect people’s life and property.”
Dilmurat Tursun, 52, is among those missing. The Australian permanent resident had lived in Sydney since 2011. In 2017 he took a trip to China with his wife, Dilbar Abdurahaman. Once inside the country, family members say their passports were confiscated and pair were unable to return home. In 2018 Tursun disappeared.
He is believed to have been taken into a detention centre. His wife is trapped in China under house arrest and lives in fear that she too will be taken to a camp.
“I feel desperate and a sense of hopelessness,” said Abdurahaman’s sister Zulfiyah Kurash. “The only crime we can think of [that led to his imprisonment] is that he came to Australia and has relatives here.”
Other Uighur Australians have spoken of their difficulty in getting politicians to take their situation seriously.
Jurad Addukerin, 53, from Sydney, visited Canberra with some members of the World Uighur Congress in 2018 to meet MPs, but arrived during one of the Liberal party’s leadership contests.
“I felt they were not very serious about this conversation, they said they were very busy because they were in the middle of this other thing,” Addukerin said. “I hope that since 3 million people are being detained illegally and may be facing genocide that politicians should do more, should raise their voice about this issue, instead of not doing anything or saying anything.”
We cannot live free, even if we live here’
Uighurs in Australia continue to detail harassment by the Chinese authorities.
On Christmas Day, Rashida Abdughupur was at a picnic at Victor Harbour, south of Adelaide, with other members of the Uighur community when she received a video call through the messaging service WeChat. It was the Chinese police, who turned the phone around to show that they had Abdughupur’s mother handcuffed at a police station, she said. They told Abdughupur they would take her mother to the camps unless she gave them information.
Terrified, Abdughupur showed them her driver’s licence, passport, visa and Medicare card, which shows her children’s names.
“After that, the police said don’t ring your mum, they deleted her account, so I don’t know if she’s in the camp or not. I was just sitting there crying, I didn’t know what to say,” she said.
More than a dozen Uighurs in Australia have told the Guardian of intimidation and harassment from the Chinese authorities.
Ali*, 34, received a call from a family member in 2017, who told him she would be sent to the camps unless he sent copies of his children’s birth certificates and passports, as well as where they went to school, where the family lived and where he and his wife worked.
“We cannot live free, even if we are living in Australia,” he said.
Several Uighurs told the Guardian they had received calls purporting to be from the Chinese embassy in Canberra, or a Chinese consulate telling them to come in to collect a parcel or package.
One person received 10 such calls over the course of a month, despite being an Australian citizen with no connection to China except that he was married to a Uighur woman.
Another said he received four calls from a Canberra-based number telling him to come to the embassy, despite being an Australian citizen who had lived in Australia for 15 years.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra said: “The Chinese Embassy in Australia has never made the phone calls you mentioned. Last year, the Chinese embassy, AFP and ACT Police urged members of the Chinese community to be aware of the scam calls targeting Chinese nationals.”