Xinjiang Explained: What Is Happening In China's Uighur Internment Camps?

It's being called "cultural genocide", with detention camps in China's Xinjiang province holding an estimated 1.5 million members of a Muslim minority group.

Some experts believe as many as 1.5 million Uyghur Muslims -- an ethnic minority in the western province of Xinjiang -- including some who have Australian permanent residency, are being detained in internment camps.

The people are being detained in so-called "re-education centres", where human rights advocates say they are forced to become indoctrinated with Chinese Communist Party ideals.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she was "deeply concerned" about the human rights situation, which has been in train since 2017 but come further to light in recent weeks.

China's Xinjiang is an autonomous region in China's west. Photo: Reuters.

Some of those missing have relatives in Australia, desperate to rescue their loved ones. But the regime is now at the centre of an international political tug-of-war, with western countries condemning China but more nations like Russia and Saudi Arabia publicly supporting the system.

So what's going on here?

What is happening in Xinjiang?

The United Nations described the region as home to a "massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy".

Since late 2016 or early 2017, the Chinese government has been detaining Uyghurs -- a minority Muslim group living in parts of China -- in political education camps, pre-trial detention, and prison, under the guise of stamping down on terrorism.

It characterises these camps as "vocational education and employment training centres" for "criminals involving in minor offences", according to Human Rights Watch, but permits no independent monitoring of these facilities.

An armed police officer stands outside what China says are "vocational education centres". Photo: Reuters.

People who have left Xinjiang report the purpose of these camps is forced assimilation. Detainees are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, praise the Communist Party, attend weekly or daily Chinese flag-raising ceremonies, and attend political indoctrination meetings.

Those living outside detention are subject to strict movement restrictions, including house arrest.

German researcher Adrian Zenz, credited with bringing evidence of the camps to light, used satellite images, spending figures and witness accounts to estimate up to 1.5 million people may be detained.

"The Chinese state's present attempt to eradicate independent and free expressions of the distinct ethnic and religious identities in Xinjiang is nothing less than a systematic campaign of cultural genocide and should be treated as such," he told Reuters in March.

People are targeted for infringements including freely expressing their religion, having links to certain foreign counties, and even using foreign communication tools such as WhatsApp, according to reports.

What is the rest of the world doing?

On July 8, a group of 22 counties -- including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Japan -- wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner, asking China to uphold its laws and international obligations.

The United States, which had previously criticised China's treatment of Uyghurs, did not sign the letter.

A few days later, ambassadors of 37 countries including Russia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, signed a letter in China's defence, praising its "contribution to the international human rights cause".

Xinjiang protest
Protesters in Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Reuters.

Payne said Australia was committed to pursuing China over the mass detention, but acknowledged it was a tricky and delicate situation.

"We've said very consistently that we are deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, including the use of detention facilities," she told ABC's Radio National.

"Those concerns have been raised with China regularly, including directly by me, in my visit last year."

She said Australia is unable to provide consular assistance to non-Australian citizens, as well as dual Chinese-Australian nationals.

"China doesn't provide consular access to dual nationals unless they have actually entered China on their Australian passports, so that does add to the complexity," she told RN.

"But we continue to raise these issues and to seek information and access."

How is Australia involved?

It's estimated there could be at least 10 people with permanent residential status in Australia detained in Xinjiang.

One person believed detained is Buzainafu Abudourexiti. Prior to her arrest, she had been planning to join her new husband Almas Nizamidin in Australia. The couple were expecting their first child.

However, Abudourexiti was taken from her parents' house in March 2017 and transferred 1000km to the city of Akesu. She has not been seen or heard from since.

Buzainafu Abudourexiti and Almas Nizamidin. Photo: Supplied.

“We believe Buzainafu Abudourexiti is being detained in violation of her human rights and we lend our voice to Almas’ for Minister Payne and the Australian Government to seek information on her welfare and ultimately for her to be released and returned to her family in Australia,” Amnesty International Australia campaigner Nikita White said.

Her husband is appealing to the Australian government to work with Chinese authorities to bring his wife to Australia.

Australian clothing brands are also reportedly investigating links to cotton suppliers in the Xinjiang district, which may be using detained Uyghurs as forced labour.

The ABC's Four Corners reports that major local apparel brands may be sourcing cotton from Xinjiang.

Target Australia confirmed to 10 daily it has one supplier from the Xinjiang province, and is investigating as a precautionary measure.

"As part of our Ethical Sourcing Code of Conduct Target Australia take any breaches of this Code very seriously, this includes any allegations of forced labour," a spokesperson said.

"Following the recent reports regarding the Huafu Mill in Xinjiang we identified that one Target direct supplier is using a small amount of cotton yarn from a mill owned by Huafu in Xinjiang province. Target is conducting a review of the situation."

Cotton On and Jeanswest have also been contacted for comment.

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