Uyghur students in Canada fear for their families in China — and their futures
The Telegram, 7 August 2019
By Jacob Hoytema – As a Uyghur international student in Canada, Jordin lives like any other young person in university, attending class and going to parties.
But on the inside, Jordin’s daily life is filled with anxiety and concern every day for family back home in China.
In the western province of Xinjiang, there are an estimated three million Uyghurs held in “re-education” centres, where they are forced to speak and write Chinese, and are forbidden from practising Islam. The majority of Uyghurs are Muslim and have a culture and language distinct from Han Chinese, the country’s main ethnic group. Foreign policy experts say the Chinese government views the Uyghurs’ unique cultural identity as a threat to unified government support, and in recent years the estimated number of Uyghurs sent to the centres has drastically increased.
Jordin (not their real name) is one of dozens of Uyghur international students who arrived in Canada in the last few years to attend postsecondary institutions.
This newspaper has spoken with a number of Uyghur students across the country, removing their real names and any identifying information. (The students say the families of Uyghurs who speak to the press outside of China are at risk of imprisonment or other punishment.)
The students detail how the situation in China has left them in a precarious position. They say they’re unable to return home because of fears they’ll be detained and sent to the re-education camps, which they liken to prisons. But returning home is a possibility they may have to face when their visas or passports expire. The Canadian government has accepted some Uyghurs as refugees, but has not made any guarantee against deporting them like some other countries have.
The students arrived in Canada earlier in the decade, like most other Uyghurs studying in the country. Few Uyghurs students have arrived recently, they say, as they are nowadays heavily restricted from leaving China. The individuals we spoke to say it was already difficult for Uyghurs to obtain passports to travel and study abroad when they left several years ago, and that they had to collect signatures from local officials to obtain approval.
Several of them say their applications were helped by connections their families had to local government.
A lot of the students still have years left on their passports and visas before they have to worry about possible deportation. The more immediate problem for them is the stress of wondering about the safety of their families.
“I laugh, but deep inside you can’t be truly happy,” says Riley, another student. “You hang out with friends, you laugh, you play games, but especially when you’re alone, everything comes to your mind.
“I was an international student, but now I’ll be a Uyghur living in diaspora.”
“I never used to dream” in the years before the camps dominated Uyghur life, Jordin says.
Now sleep brings Orwellian nightmares of police, security cameras and family in danger.
“I keep dreaming about that. The image is so vivid. It’s so true in my brain.”
A December report from the Canadian parliamentary subcommittee on international human rights said that while the re-education camps resemble “otherwise unremarkable apartment building(s),” those inside are subjected to psychological and physical punishment, often starved and forced to voice praise for the Chinese government, according to experts who have spoken with released detainees and witnesses.
The Chinese government hasn’t been open to independent scrutiny regarding details about the camps, including how many people are kept inside, though the U.S. Department of Defence estimates the number to be about three million.
As recently as last week, a Xinjiang government official claimed that most people had “graduated” from the re-education centres and returned to society. However, officials from the U.S. State Department said they’ll need to see some evidence before the claim can be believed.
In Canada, former diplomats, human rights experts, and academics have called on the government to do more in retaliation for the detention of the Uyghurs. The report from the parliamentary subcommittee on international human rights condemns China for its actions, and considers recommendations from witnesses that Canada impose sanctions on the Chinese government officials involved in the re-education camps.
The Chinese government’s rationale for the camps — “some would say excuse,” as the subcommittee report puts it — has been to fight terrorism.
An English-language report published by the Chinese government says that “law-based de-radicalization has been launched in Xinjiang to deal with illegal religious activities,” and “has effectively curbed the breeding and spread of religious extremism.”
In the document, the Chinese government points to a history of attacks from what it sees as a violent segment of the Uyghur population. It also outlines its opposition to the separatist movement among Uyghurs, many of whom often refer to the Xinjiang region as East Turkistan, a name which more aligns with their Turkic ethnicity than with the Chinese government.
Tensions have escalated between the Uyghurs and the Chinese government over the last couple of decades, and in recent years there have been several instances of violence that the Chinese government has attributed to Uyghur separatists. Notably, in 2014, four Uyghurs were charged after a knife attack in a train station in another Chinese province left 30 dead. A Beijing newspaper called the incident “China’s 9/11,” and the Chinese government said that the perpetrators were separatists from Xinjiang.
“In some cases, some Uyghurs will just do something stupid, because they have nothing to lose,” says Sidney, another Uyghur student in Canada. “But once they do something stupid, the Chinese government will just take that, and say, ‘see, this is what Uyghurs are doing’.”
The Chinese government report claims that “while preventing and combating terrorism and extremism in accordance with the law, Xinjiang has maintained social stability and promoted social progress in the region, meeting the people’s aspirations for a safe and stable environment to live and work in.”
Officials from the Chinese embassy in Canada did not respond to a request for comment.
The Uyghur students who spoke to this newspaper say the threshold for detainment in the re-education camps is far below acts of terrorism — a simple message to family could be cause for punishment, they say.
Sidney says speaking to the press or a critical post on social media could lead to repercussions for their family in Xinjiang. “I’m happy today because my parents are still safe,” Sidney says. “Otherwise you would be seeing me in front of the Parliament myself, on CBC.”
The students here, however, don’t know how safe their family and friends back home really are.
“Before 2017, my mom talked to me every single day with WeChat,” Riley says. “Literally every single day.”
But now, the Uyghur students’ video chats and messages with their families in Xinjiang are not only brief and infrequent, but subdued, and almost painfully meaningless. The Chinese government is capable of monitoring WeChat, the country’s dominant social networking app, making honest and open conversation impossible.
“I’m pretty sure it’s the same for every single family,” Jordin says, describing how video chats with family occur. “First, only one representative of your family is going to talk to you, not all of them. In my case, it’s only my mom.”
And the conversations only touch on superficial topics, Jordin says: “First, ‘Hi.’ ‘Hi.’ ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Good, good.’ ‘Have you eaten enough? How’s studying?’ That’s it, done. Five minutes, max.”
“Before, my parents would check in on me,” says Riley. “But now I’m checking in on my parents. It hurts to talk to them.”
One student describes how their parents asked them to take pictures with Han Chinese students in Canada, to show to the authorities as evidence of the Uyghur student’s good behaviour abroad.
In earlier years, some of the students were once able to return home to visit. Sam, another student, remembers visiting family in 2016, before population in the camps exploded, and finding that tensions with the Chinese government had worsened. “My parents told me (in 2016) you’d better not come back; just prepare to stay in Canada for a longer period of time … They said, ‘We’re going to let you know when is the right time to go back’.”
Sam has been attending regular counselling sessions to deal with the stress.
Besides worrying about the condition of their families overseas, the young students also have to make sure they’re careful to avoid alleged Chinese surveillance here in Canada.
In February, the National Post reported that a talk by an Uyghur-Canadian activist was disrupted by members of a Chinese student association. The Uyghur students say they share a belief that some “patriotic” Chinese students are sharing information with Chinese diplomats, extending the government’s ability to intimidate opponents outside of its borders.
“I think that these kinds of threats have been quite effective in encouraging people to remain silent about their concerns in regards to China. It’s a highly organized campaign on the part of the Chinese regime in Canada, as in other countries,” says Charles Burton, a Brock University academic who has worked with the government on China policy for two decades. “I could quite understand why Uyghur students in Canada are not prepared to speak out, because it could have a retaliatory effect on their families.”
Burton and other experts have been calling on the government to target Chinese government officials through Canada’s Magnitsky Law, which enables the government to impose sanctions on individual foreign government personnel who are perceived to have abused human rights.
Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland have spoken out about the detention of the Uyghurs, but carefully. In a meeting between Trudeau and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last November, for example, while Trudeau was praising new trade deals, Canada-China tourism and a “strengthened partnership” between the two countries, he also said he was “concerned about the situation facing Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.”
“I think the only country that speaks out for us is the U.S.,” Riley says. “Canada is definitely not doing anything.”
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s treatment of the Uyghurs “one of the worst human rights crises of our time.” And in May, a Democratic U.S. Senator told The Globe and Mail that Western countries like Canada need to do more.
Numerous academic researchers and policy organizations around the world have used satellite imagery to measure the locations and growth of the camps. University of British Columbia law student Shawn Zhang, for example, uses Google Earth software to identify camp locations and update a complete list of them on his blog. At the time of writing, he said he had found 94.
Burton says the re-education centres “clearly amount to cultural genocide,” but that he doesn’t see the Canadian government taking a tougher stand due to what he sees as the “considerable influence of a pro-China lobby which has been urging the government to show restraint in addressing the activities of the Chinese regime.”
Regardless of what actions the government takes abroad, decisions they make in Canada are more pertinent to the Uyghur students living here.
Students with due-to-expire passports have visited Chinese consulates in Canada to try and renew, but have been offered what they describe as a “one-way travel document,” told that they’d need to return to Xinjiang to go through the process.
But they say they fear questioning or imprisonment if they return home.
If they want to remain in Canada, the primary route to do so once their student visas expire is to apply for asylum as refugees.
Jamie Chai Yun Liew, a University of Ottawa professor who specializes in immigration, refugee and statelessness law, says that in her opinion, “a lot of the students would have strong cases” for refugee claims.
“The difficulty,” she explains, “is that Canada looks at each refugee claim on its own merit, meaning that it’s not applied to a group of people … each student, if they went this route, would have to put forward their own narrative or story to convince immigration officials that this would indeed happen to them if they returned.”
Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada says that “Canada has not considered any special program for Uyghurs.”
Mehmet Tohti, a founding member of the Uyghur Canadian Association, says this is not good enough on the part of the Canadian government.
“Given the seriousness of the situation,” he says, Canada should enact some sort of policy to block any potential deportation of Uyghurs, or else fast-track their cases within the Immigration and Refugee Board. “The process sometimes takes very long — a year to a year-and-a-half,” he says. He also points out that some Western nations, like Germany and Sweden, have made wholesale decisions not to deport any Uyghurs to China.
Tohti says that in his view, “Canada is scared to make any move” when it comes to relations with China, and thinks Canada needs to change its diplomatic approach.