An elementary school in Xinjiang. Photo: Smoky Shin

By Clara Wong and May Mcgrath age 10 and IndyKids Staff

Pronunciation for Uyghur- WEE-gor

Human Rights Watch has called on the Chinese government to immediately release all Uyghur children being held in so-called child welfare institutions and boarding schools in Xinjiang — an autonomous region in China’s northwest that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia.

Xinjiang is traditionally made up of ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim communities. The Uyghur language is related to Turkish, and their culture is closer to Central Asian countries.

Conflict between the Uyghurs and the Chinese government has been going on for many years. The Uyghurs traditionally lived in Xinjiang, now considered northwest China, and then the Han Chinese people came. Xinjiang became ruled by China in the 18th century. An East Turkestan state was briefly declared in 1949, but independence was short-lived: Xinjiang officially became part of Communist China later that year.

Since 2014, the Chinese government has increased its punishment and control of Uyghurs. Human rights groups say that this is one of the most harmful things they have done.

“The Chinese government’s forced separation of children is perhaps the cruelest element of its oppression in Xinjiang,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released in mid-September. “Children should be either immediately returned to the custody of relatives in China or allowed to join their parents outside the country.”

Separating children from their families is one of many steps which the Chinese government has taken in recent years to punish and control the Uyghurs. Other things include forced imprisonment of adults in detention camps and one of the largest systems of government surveillance in the world, which monitors what the Uyghurs do and say, making sure they don’t do or say anything against the Chinese government.

An estimated 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are held in what China calls “political reeducation camps,” but the U.S. military has deemed them “concentration camps.” This is not just impacting adults, but also their families, as more than 400 children have lost their parents to these detention camps. It appears to be the largest imprisonment of people based on religion since the Holocaust.

But China says that they are not being horrible to the Uyghurs; instead, they are saying that these camps are teaching them “vocational training.” China says that it is doing these things to stop Muslim extremism, but critics of China’s policies toward the Uyghurs say that it’s about eliminating their culture.

The Chinese government has banned these communities from practicing their language, culture and religion. In 2015, the government banned basic Muslim practices such as fasting in the holy month of Ramadan, as well as Muslim traditions such as the wearing of veils in public places and very long beards.

Other rules include having to watch China’s state television and attend public schools, which prohibit Uyghur and other local languages from school premises. There are points-based punishments for both students and teachers if they speak anything other than Chinese while in school.

In the camps, the Uyghurs experience “long hours of Chinese” lessons and are forced to demonstrate their patriotism to the Chinese Communist Party.

“This is a calculated social policy designed to eliminate the separate cultural, religious and ethnic identity of the Uyghurs,” former U.N. human rights envoy Ben Emmerson told the Guardian. “That’s a genocidal policy.” 

Timothy Grose, a professor of China studies at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, pointed out that the daily schedules in these detention centers imitate the Native American and Indigenous Australian boarding schools, which were intended to erase their indigenous cultures.

Research released in July, by the BBC, revealed that there is a fast, large-scale plan to build boarding schools to send more children away from their families.

One of the BBC journalists who visited the adult camps, John Sudworth, was told the camps were “schools not prisons,” but found graffiti in the camp that read “oh my heart don’t break.” Also, Rakhima Senbay, a former detainee, told the BBC, “They put cuffs on my legs for a week. There were times when we were beaten. They warned us ahead of the visits: If any of you speak out you will go to a worse place than this.”

Human rights groups are keeping accounts of detentions and disappearances of the Uyghur Muslims, but it’s difficult because they are often unable to access the camps. Uyghurs are also unable to reach their relatives and family while they are being held in the camps.

In July, China said that they have released most Uyghur Muslims from the “reeducation” camps. But the U.S. State Department said it has not been able to make sure those claims by the Chinese government are correct. A Uyghur from Canada, Guly Mahsut, 37, said it is not true. “One of my cousins and one of my tour guide friends, and my friend’s husband, they are still in the camps,” she told Agence France-Presse.

Human Rights Watch said that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which China ratified in 1992, recognizes the family as the natural environment for the growth and well-being of children. The convention says that governments need to make sure that children should not be separated from their parents against their wishes, except when such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child — for example, in cases involving parental abuse or neglect.

Many countries, even Muslim-majority countries, are hesitant to publicly criticize Beijing over its treatment of Uyghurs, given China’s economic and political importance in the world.

Glossary

Uyghurs: A largely Muslim ethnic minority group based mainly in the westernmost Xinjiang region, outside inner China

Autonomous region: A dependent territory of a country that has a degree of self-governance, or autonomy/independence from an external authority.

Critics- A person who disagrees about something.

Surveillance: Close observation, especially of a suspected spy or criminal.

Concentration camps: A place where large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor. The term is most strongly associated with the several hundred camps established by the Nazis in Germany and occupied Europe in 1933-45 during World War II.

Holocaust: A thorough destruction which involves loss of life. A term also associated by the loss of Jewish lives during World War II.

Genocidal: Relating to the deliberate erasure of a large group of people of a particular nation or ethnic group.

Patriotism: Devotion to and strong support for one’s country.

The United Nations: An international organization formed in 1945 to increase political and economic cooperation among its member countries.

Ratified: To officially sign and agree to follow a treaty, contract or agreement.