The Uyghur Diaspora in Central Asia and Europe Against the Chinese Concentration Camps



As the Chinese state recently intensified its colonial violence against Muslim Uyghurs and incarcerated hundreds of thousands of them in camps, Dilnur Reyhan tells us about the way the Uyghur diaspora currently organizes to build up international solidarity.

Since the end of 2016, when China brutally worsened its policy in the Uyghur region, there has been major shifts in the responses of the Uyghur diaspora around the world. Since the 1990s, Uyghur organizations in various countries, especially in those that operate through the representative democracy model, have tried to publicize the Uyghur cause by working to raise awareness on the China-Uyghur ‘crisis’ and to influence public opinion — especially in Turkey — generally with the aim of influencing foreign policy and other public policies relating to the Uyghur Region. Yet, many members of the diaspora remained silent in the hopes of being able to travel to China. The designation of Chen Quanguo as head of the autonomous Uyghur region of Xinjiang has changed this situation, cutting off all Uyghurs from their families, including the ability to go to visit them without fearing for their safety. China’s fascist policy of considering all Turkic-speaking peoples, especially Uyghurs, as potentially dangerous and implementing the elimination of their identity has forced many quiet and non-politically active members of the diaspora to speak out and join the diasporic movement.

The Uyghurs of Russian-speaking Central Asia occupy an extremely important place in the Uyghur diasporic movement. For a long time, they were rather underestimated by the leadership of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) even though it included the political figure Qehriman Ghojamberdi of Kazakhstan and the ITTIPAQ (“Unite” in Uyghur) Association of Kyrgyzstan. This has changed in recent years, especially since the Congress is fractured around the presidency of businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, who is largely supported by the Central Asian diaspora. During the congress of Paris in summer 2015, Central Asian Uyghur representatives came in large numbers to support the former president, even organizing a ceremony of Ton (the traditional dress of honor). The ITTIPAQ Association even proudly re-electing Kadeer despite the unhappy voters.

Their importance in the diasporic movement is even more felt, because of their numbers, since the petitions against the Chinese concentration camps have multiplied. Indeed, estimated between 500,000 to a million, the Central Asian Uyghurs weigh heavily now in the legitimacy of these organizations and in the success of international actions that require a popular mobilization of the diaspora.

Since 2017, the Uyghurs of Russian-speaking Central Asia have been mobilized more than ever. This time, with not only the Uyghur politicians of these Central Asian countries, but also ordinary people who were not previously involved in the movement. The multiplication of testimonies around the camps, the mediatization of Kazakh witnesses in Almaty and the involvement of Kazakhstan by the pressure of the Ata Jurt association are all reasons to wake up. Moverover, it is through mobile applications like Whatsapp that enable more Uyghurs to communicate more and join the action. We were able to see this around the Australian petition against the camps, but especially the petition submitted to the U.S. government by Salih Hudayar, one of the new activists amongst the young generation in the diaspora. This mobilization has once again shown the importance of conquering this numerically overwhelming population to legitimize political action.

The Uyghur diaspora in Europe is mostly present in a few European countries, notably Germany and the Netherlands (about 2,000 people in each), Belgium and France (around 1,000 people in each) in Western Europe, as well as in Scandinavia (around 3,000 people in total). This diaspora, which used to be united around the WUC in Germany, has been fractured for the last two years over leaders’ conflict in the Congress, over Kadeer’s presidency. The division is striking depending on each country. Thus, the people disappointed by the Congress are mostly outside Europe, namely in the United States and Turkey, both whom have failed to show a united front against the Congress. Thus, we have witnessed actions carried out separately by these factions, supported by different conflicting organizational bodies and their support to varying degrees according to the periods.

If the diaspora was fractured because of Kadeer’s presidency, the massive opening of concentration camps for the Uyghur population in their country of origin has changed somewhat the nature of the schism. Since then, the supporters of Kadeer and those against her have found a new slogan that is “Struggle for the Independence of East Turkestan,” contrasting with notions of autonomy or the right to self-determination defended by the WUC. This new division also influenced the European Uyghur diaspora, especially some past supporters of the Congress who were previously disappointed or excluded from the movement.

Seyit Tümtürk, a former vice-president of the WUC and a political figure of the Uyghurs in Turkey, first organized three days of meetings in 2018 in the Netherlands, where most of his European supporters live. He brought together those disappointed by the WUCand declared the forthcoming creation of an organization bearing loudly the slogan of independence. At the end of September 2018, he organized in Paris the first congress of these new organizations, one of which is the East Turkestan Movement for Independence, and the other, the East Turkestan Parliament. Being the only candidate, he is appointed to head the parliament, and Turmuhammet Hashim in Japan was appointed as the president of the Movement for Independence. Active members of the diaspora around the world, even those who initially supported Kadeer’s presidency, came to this congress from all around Europe.

Following models coming out of other western countries (USA, Australia, New Zealand), the Uyghurs of the United Kingdom also organized a petition to the English parliament, demanding the British government to take a position and implement firm measures against the concentration camps in the Uyghur region. Before summer 2018, a group of Uyghur delegates, along with some academics working on the issue of camps were received by the English parliament to make their situation heard. Meanwhile in other countries, Uyghur associations would send a group of delegates to meet state officials before they would go on official state trips to China. Thus, we have seen that the Norwegian Prime Minister and the Dutch King had addressed the Uyghur issue during their meeting with the Head of the Chinese State. In France, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ human rights ambassador received a group of French Uyghurs and heard their testimonies.

Apart from these petitions and meetings with senior state officials, large-scale protests were organized in European countries where Uyghurs live. However, the most important events often took place in Brussels, Paris, Munich and Amsterdam to make the Uyghur cause heard in these highly populated capitals. Despite the factions, the WUC remains the most influential and important player in the organization of these European events.

Radio Free Asia is one of the first media sources that has accessed and disseminated information about Uyghurs in general and the camps from their first appearance. In Europe, English language media, especially the British ones, have since the end of 2017 given better coverage to what is happening in the Uyghur region. In France and Germany, the media began reporting only from 2018 onwards. Nevertheless, since summer 2018, the media have relayed the numerous calls of China and Uyghur studies scholars to close the concentration camps, and the Université Libre de Bruxelles recently made an official call to all the European universities to join it in condemning China, and showing solidarity with imprisoned Uyghur colleagues. It is the first and only university in the world so far to call other universities to stand in solidarity around the Uyghur issue.

The intensification of Chinese repressions against the Uyghur population in their country of origin has given birth to new young and influential actors in the diaspora, such as Salih Hudayar and Kuzzat Altay in the United States, Halmurat Harri in Finland, and Abduhehim Gheni in the Netherland. While the two U.S. activists began their activities by organizing Uyghurs around them, as a collective movement for the Uyghurs by Uyghurs, Harri and Gheni campaign on their own with the aim to raise awareness of their compatriots in Finland and Holland, through their personal testimonies and individual protests.

Although women have been involved in the diasporic movement since the beginning of collective exile, their place has not been assured or valued until recent years. We are witnessing a major change since 2017 in the diasporic movements, with the increasing visibility of women and the valorization of their participation and contributions. This sudden visibility of Uyghur women in movements, whether in demonstrations organized by themselves or their incessant testimonies that outnumber those of men, has pushed men to publicly admit on social media networks the unavoidable and indispensable place of women in the diasporic struggle. Uyghur web TV channels in the Netherlands have given voice and place for the first time to actresses of European Uyghur movements. In Europe, we can cite especially the singer and activist Rahime Mahmut in London, political analyst Asiye Uyghur from Holland, and representatives in Europe of the World Uyghur Women Union (founded by Rebiya Kadeer in 2013). But still, there are very few women in the key posts of these organizations. Women must be presented with opportunities to take up a high responsibility in the movement and presented with the platform to make their contributions more visible.

The political division with ideology had strongly weakened the force of the diasporic movement, exhausting its active members and pushing away non-active members from the organizations. The history of the political diasporas teaches us that the ideological division concerning the diasporas’ political direction is inevitable, especially since the Uyghur diaspora is still young and still growing, dominated by the first diasporic generation in countries where the nationalist movement is the most developed. Although the ideological wars are becoming more and more an obstacle in the formation of a united front against the common enemy, and despite the intensification of Chinese repression, the Uyghur diaspora is seeking alliances that will also contribute to the triumph of freedom and democracy in the Uyghurland. As a result, the movement needs the expertise and experiences of older diasporas and strong international solidarity that can push the Chinese government back. The explicit and concrete support of women’s organizations to Uyghur women, who suffer multiple forms of repressions, is essential in strengthening the place and visibility of Ugyhur women in the diaspora.