At least 1 million Uighur Muslims are currently detained in China’s self-declared “re-education” centers, which face multiple allegations of torturing those in the camps.
According to BBC, a UN committee first heard allegations of torture from within China’s re-education centers in August 2018, but the country denied their existence for several months. China acknowledged the centers did exist in October 2018 but said they were designed to provide vocational training as a response to “ethnic separatism and violent terrorist criminal activities.”
“The education and training centers are schools that help the people free themselves from the influence of extremism and terrorism and acquire professional skills,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told PBS. “The centers are anything but horrific concentration camps.”
Uighur Muslims are an ethnic minority group located mostly in Western China, specifically in the Xinjiang region. The group makes up less than 1% of China’s total population. Uighur heritage can be traced back several centuries to Central Asia, but in recent years many have fled from China to Istanbul.
China faced criticism on an international scale, despite their denial of alleged torture, but the United States is the only country that has made an individual effort to implement policies that would deter the continuing of the re-education centers.
BBC reported a statement, released by the U.S. Commerce Department, that the country is now actively fighting against “China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs and other members of the Muslim minority group.”
Despite the U.S. blacklisting 28 Chinese organizations from purchasing any U.S. products—effective Oct. 8, 2019—the Chinese government continues to deny the allegations.
“There is no such thing as these so-called ‘human rights issues’ as claimed by the United States,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Greg Shuang told BBC. “These accusations are nothing more than an excuse for the United States to deliberately interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
Previous to the U.S.’s recent change in policy, The New York Times reported the most significant international response to Uighur-re-education center issue was a document signed by 23 countries of the UN. The document demanded that China close the centers.
“Many, many governments are looking the other way and self-censoring on the issue of [re-education camps],” former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under the Obama administration Daniel R. Russel told The New York Times. “Beijing is notoriously prickly about its self-declared ‘core interests,’ and few countries are willing to put the economic benefits of good relations with China at risk—let alone find themselves on the receiving end of Chinese retaliation.”
In response to the statement, China collected the signatures of 37 countries who agreed the re-education camps were a “contribution to the human rights cause,” according to The New York Times.
Many Uighur Muslims have migrated over 2,500 miles from the Xinjiang region to Istanbul, Turkey, in fear of prosecution or imprisonment. Some of those in Istanbul have been in the re-education camps and claim they were tortured, made to eat pork and drink alcohol and forced to reject their religion.
“In Xinjiang, the Chinese government prevents Muslims from praying and reading the Quran, and it has destroyed or defaced a great number of mosques,” U.S. diplomat John Sullivan told Al Jazeera. “This is a systematic campaign by the Chinese Communist Party to stop its own citizens from exercising their unalienable right to religious freedom.”
Not all of the detainees are Chinese citizens either. Omir Bekal was visiting China from his home country of Kazakhstan when he was detained by Chinese authorities. According to The Independent, Kazakhstani officials say Bekal was held in a Chinese prison for at least seven months—but possibly longer—before he was transferred to a re-education center for a month. He was then extradited back to Kazakhstan.
“The psychological pressure is enormous, when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking—your own ethnic group,” Bekal told The Independent. “I still think about it every night until the sun rises. I can’t sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time.”