Thursday

26th Nov 2020

Feature

China accused of intimidating Uighur refugees in Europe

  • Yashar Yalkun, the president of the Belgian Uighur Association, outside the EU Council in Brussels (Photo: Yashar Yalkun)

China denies it, but Uighur exiles who fled to EU states say they are still being terrorised by threatening phone-calls, SMS-es, and other forms of what some security services have dubbed "refugee-espionage".

One such call, from a masked number, came on a day in July 2019 when Yashar Yalkun, a Uighur activist and Belgian asylum holder, was playing with his infant son at home in Antwerp, a Belgian city.

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  • EU Council president and former Belgian prime minister Charles Michel (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

It was his mother and sister in China, whom he had not heard from in three years, on the line, but they were not calling to wish him well.

"They begged me to stop whatever I was doing or something horrible would happen to them," he told EUobserver.

"I knew that Chinese state security had kidnapped my family and was trying to use them against me, so I told them: 'You can kill them if you want. I'll never stop fighting for our freedom'," he said.

Yalkun spoke out on behalf of the 3,000 or so Uighurs living in Belgium in his capacity as president of the Belgian Uighur Association (BUA), an NGO.

Most of them come from Central Asian countries, such as Kazakhstan, but about 450 of them come from what Uighurs call East Turkistan and what China calls its Xinjiang province.

And it was those Chinese Uighur families which were now being targeted the same way that he had been in July, Yalkun noted.

"I know of about 20 recent cases [in Belgium]," he told this website.

"I don't know how they [Chinese security services] get our private phone numbers, because normally they're quite hard to find," he said.

"We also know we have [Chinese] spies and infiltrators in our communities, but we can't identify them," he added.

Uighurs like him have fled to Europe after more than a decade of Chinese persecution in Xinjiang on grounds that some of them posed a separatist or terrorist threat.

China has imprisoned up to 1 million Uighurs in what The New York Times, a US newspaper, recently called "the largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority since World War II".

The US has also imposed sanctions on Chinese companies linked to Uighur forced labour in Xinjiang, while the EU has urged China to let its diplomats go there to see what was happening.

For its part, China denies any wrongdoing.

"Terrorism and extremism are the common enemies of humanity, and counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation are the common responsibilities of the international community," its embassy to Belgium said.

"At the same time, China is opposed to linking terrorism to specific nationalities or religions, which is ... a generally accepted norm for the international community," it added.

It also denied Yalkun's account, saying: "The so-called Chinese surveillance of the Uighurs in Belgium, and the sending of threatening text messages and phone calls to the Uighurs, are completely untrue, and they are pure rumours and slanders".

"This is another fake news against China made by people with ulterior motives," the Chinese embassy said.

Belgian authorities declined to comment.

Chinese embassy to Belgium asked Uighurs, last year, to come and collect a mysterious parcel, Yalkun said (Photo: Google)

EU-wide problem

But for its part, the World Uighur Congress (WUC), an NGO in Munich, Germany, which represents the Uighur diaspora in international fora, also said the problem was real and was much bigger than Belgium.

"Uighurs living abroad, whether it's in Europe or other parts of the world, have all faced similar reprisals from China," WUC spokeswoman Zumretay Arkin told EUobserver.

"The European countries with a large Uighur population are: Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. China uses different tactics to harass and intimidate Uighurs in these countries," she said.

"It's difficult to quantify these incidents ... However, they are significant and not isolated and the level of harassment is getting bigger," she added.

"Chinese officials force Uighurs in [China] to call their relatives abroad and ask them to stop their activism," she said, echoing Yalkun's experience.

"Activists are also targeted and intimidated by unidentified persons, mostly of Chinese origin. They will take photos sneakily on their phones, disrupt public events, and even send death threats," she added.

"Nowhere is safe for Uighurs. Even in the most democratic countries, these incidents keep happening. China's long arm is reaching further," she said.

The Swedish state security service, the Säkerhetspolisen [Säpo], has even coined a technical term for what China has been doing to Uighurs and its other political exiles in Europe: "flyktingspionage", or "refugee-espionage".

"China's intelligence activities also involve espionage targeting of regime critics and the Tibetan and Uighur communities in Sweden," the Säpo said in its 2019 report.

"These activities are seen by China as steps towards protecting its territorial integrity from perceived threats and protecting the Communist Party," it added.

The 2019 Säpo report did not give examples.

But in one recent case in Strasbourg, France, last year, two Chinese security officers disguised as students disrupted a conference on Uighur rights, Vanessa Frangville, a French academic who organised the event, recently told The Atlantic, a US magazine.

In another case in 2017, Swedish police accused a Chinese man posing as a journalist of refugee-espionage.

In a third case in Germany in 2016, China jailed a Chinese refugee's siblings after he had criticised the Communist Party in an op-ed in German newspaper Deutsche Welle and in an interview with Radio France Internationale.

Some EU states were better than others in protecting Uighur refugees, the WUC's Arkin said.

"Germany and Sweden have set a precedent by issuing a moratorium on sending back Uighur refugees and asylum seekers to China," she noted.

But other "local authorities [in Europe] must take these incidents more seriously and give better protection ... to their own [adopted] citizens on their territory," Arkin said.

The BUA's Yalkun said Belgian authorities had been helpful, to an extent.

When China, last year, invited Uighur residents in the country to come and collect a mysterious parcel at its Belgian embassy in Brussels, a Belgian security contact tipped off Yalkun and others not to go, for instance, he told EUobserver.

But its Uighur exiles also felt let down by Belgium over an incident last year, he said.

When a Uighur woman and her four children, last June, went to Belgium's Beijing embassy to get visas to join her husband, Abdulhamid Tursun, an Uighur refugee in Brussels, Belgian diplomats let Chinese police come in to the embassy compound and drag them out.

When Tursun met with Joseph Bockaert, the director of consular affairs at the Belgian foreign ministry in Brussels, he was told: "We [Belgium] don't want to be in conflict with China", according to a report in The New York Times.

And when Yalkun called the Belgian foreign ministry to try to help Tursun, Yalkun was also told: "We [Belgium] can't give you too much support, because it's China and they're too strong", Yalkun told EUobserver.

Asylum, consular affairs, and security are national prerogatives under EU treaties, meaning EU institutions have little to say on how member states have handled individual cases of "refugee-espionage".

Uighur women in China traditionally wear their hair long (Photo: Sergio Tittarini)

EU solutions?

But the WUC, for one, would like to see an EU-level approach, with European visa bans and asset freezes imposed on Chinese officials deemed guilty of refugee-abuse, Arkin said.

"For this specific reason, European countries must implement firmer policies, legislation, such as Magnitsky-style laws," she said, referring to targeted human rights sanctions, named after a late Russian activist, which are already being used in Canada, the US, and a handful of EU states.

The EU foreign service recently did take a joint approach to the Xinjiang camp reports in China, by proposing a fact-finding mission by the 27 member states' ambassadors to go and see what was happening there.

Discussions about the trip with China were "ongoing", the EU service told this website, but they were "effectively paused for the time being, in light of the coronavirus situation".

Even so, the reports of Xinjiang human rights abuses were "credible" and were "gravely concerning," an EU foreign service spokeswoman said.

"Nobody disputes the right of any country to take legitimate measures to combat terrorism and ensure security," she noted.

"[But] to our understanding, the policies applied in Xinjiang appear disproportionate to the stated aim of fighting against terrorism and extremism," the EU spokeswoman said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based NGO, also urged EU Council president Charles Michel and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to increase pressure on Uighur rights when they held video-talks with Chinese president Xi Jinping and Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang on Monday (22 June).

"EU leaders can't just repeat the same lines and hope that they will somehow prompt different behaviour by Chinese authorities," HRW's EU affairs director in Brussels, Lotte Leicht, said on Friday.

Gulchehra Hoja, a senior Uighur journalist with Radio Free Asia (RFA), a US-funded news agency, also said the EU should be asking tough questions.

A recent RFA investigation indicated that Uighur women in Xianjing detention camps were being forced to cut their hair, which they traditionally wear long, in order to supply Chinese wig-making companies, she noted.

The EU should be asking China "where are the hair supplies coming from for those wig companies?", Hoja told EUobserver.

"If the concentration camps are closed and people are 'free' like the CCP [Communist Party of China] claims then where are their children? Why are the children still in the orphanages and so called 'boarding schools'?", Hoja added.

"Why are the Uighurs abroad still not able to contact their families back home?," Hoja, who lives in the US, but whose family in China was arrested in 2018 due to her work, said.

"When are you [China] going to allow them to communicate normally, freely?", she said.

Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang (l) with former EU Council president Donald Tusk at last EU-China summit (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Hard questions

But with US-China geopolitics, coronavirus, trade, and the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests also seizing the EU-China agenda, it remained to be seen if either Michel or von der Leyen will ask Xi hard questions, or any questions, on Uighurs also.

When EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell last held video-talks with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, in June, Borrell spoke only in passing of "the situation in Xinjiang" in his press briefing.

When former EU Council president Donald Tusk met Li at the last EU-China summit in May 2019, Tusk spoke about Uighurs in a "private meeting" in the margins of the event, the Reuters news agency said at the time.

And when asked if Uighurs were on the agenda of Monday's summit, Michel's office said that was still uncertain, as of Friday.

But Uighur rights did not come up in an off-the-record briefing between Michel's officials and Brussels-based journalists on Sunday, an EU official said.

Opinion

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At the height of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests last fall, for example, hashtags relating to the protests appeared abundantly on platforms like Twitter. On TikTok, however, the same hashtags yielded scant results and almost no signs of unrest.

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