Early picture from the “re-education” camps in Xinjiang uploaded to WeChat. Retrieved from Flickr.com
Since the beginning of mass quarantines in China as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s draconian policies addressing the spread of the virus have come under scrutiny. Since its discovery in China’s Hubei region, the virus has quickly spread across the globe. The Chinese government has been criticized for not notifying the public of the outbreak of the disease sooner as it would have given other countries more time to prepare. As the rest of the world addresses the spread of the virus, countries are looking to places where the virus has had the greatest impact (China, Italy, and South Korea) for guidance on addressing the issue. China’s policies reflect the harshest policies but are also being implemented in Italy, where over 16 million people are being quarantined.
However, the response to coronavirus is not the first time a “rounding up everyone who should be rounded up” policy has been in place. A similar policy is in place for the Chinese government to address terrorism and uprisings in Xinjiang, resulting in the mass internment of ethnic minorities, mostly Muslim Uyghurs. The government has labelled the camps as voluntary “re-education” camps dedicated to suppressing dissent in the region. The reports from those who escaped the camps tell a very different story. Poor and unsanitary living conditions make up the majority of reports from those who have truly seen inside the camps. Very few have seen inside the camps or even have proof of their existence beyond that of eyewitness testimony. The outbreak of coronavirus in China presents a new threat to those in the internment camps.
For more information, read Maxwell Dowden’s article on Uyghur discrimination and re-education camps in China.
The impact of the virus on Uyghurs differs from that of the rest of the country in that many remain in overcrowded re-education camps with little access to medical services. The Chinese government’s slow response to the virus is especially worrisome. The close quarters and poor sanitary conditions make the spread of the virus more likely. Additionally, the virus is most concerning for those with weakened immune systems. The stress of the camp and close quarters places many more people at risk of catching the virus and experiencing more severe symptoms as a result of a compromised immune system.
As schools in Beijing and Hong Kong close, the re-education camps remain open. As factories and key industries in Wuhan grind to a halt, members of the internment camps are being put to work in the factories in affected areas. China’s state-run news service announced that over 30,000 labourers were being sent to factories in Xinjiang’s Hotan region. To make matters worse, the plight of those in camps is rarely reported on.
It is difficult to gauge the extent of the issue as the information from family members of those interned differ greatly from official Chinese government reports. The government claims the camps are voluntary and required to stamp out separatist and Islamist terrorism. The government has also been accused of misreporting infection rates and for failing to report the virus at all. It is even less likely to report any infections from the re-education camps as any information on the re-education centres is largely shrouded in secrecy. Furthermore, it is unlikely for those in the internment camps with the virus to receive adequate treatment. When asked about their plans for those in the internment camps amid the spread of COVID-19, Chinese government officials on Australian television responded that the camps were voluntary training centres and are therefore not a concern.
Human rights activists have been calling for more attention to be given to Uyghurs in concentration camps. Human rights activists have continued their fight to close the re-education camps. However, international action has been slow going. After 22 countries signed a letter calling on China to shut its internment camps, a group of 37 countries responded with a letter in defence of China’s policies. Some majority Muslim nations have defended China’s actions against the Uyghur people; a move many argue is due to a fear China will withdraw trade relations necessary for economic survival. The United States could call for allowing access to the camps for humanitarian aid workers and news outlets as a small step forward.
As the world responds to the novel coronavirus, it is important not to forget the plight of the Uyghurs in China.