Three years ago, attending a party in the British Uighur community meant singing and dancing, hand-pulled noodles and traditional dress. Celebrations – a way to unite the Turkic peoples of the UK – were organised every month.
Now the parties have stopped, and it’s not because of the lockdown. It's because spies have infiltrated the community, and lives are at stake.
China has locked up an estimated one million Uighurs in secret camps in the country’s western Xinjiang region, according to a UN human rights panel. The government claims that these are vocational “re-education” schools to root out religious extremism – a crackdown that reportedly involves forced prison labour, mass surveillance and removing Uighur children from their families. The Chinese government denies these allegations of abuse.
The UK is home to a small Uighur population, mainly living in London. They say that the poisonous campaign waged against them in their homeland has spread here, and they feel increasingly abandoned by the place they now call home.
“No one in the West cares,” one Uighur Londoner told VICE bluntly. “People will forget who we are after reading this article.” With a pandemic dominating news headlines, the blackmail and harassment of British Uighurs has been overshadowed.
Fear and paranoia have divided the community. To many, an event that invites unrelated or unknown Uighurs, is an event “gone red” – meaning it’s been infiltrated by spies of the Chinese government.
According to the World Uighur Congress (WUC), an international organisation that works alongside the UN to protect the diaspora’s rights, Chinese officials target Uighurs living in the west and demand that they sell information on their own community. Their relatives in Xinjiang are promised safety in exchange.
The COVID-19 outbreak has only exacerbated this process. The Chinese government have used technology to control and monitor the Uighur diaspora worldwide, as documented in leaked classified documents known as the China Cables. Uighurs are now more likely to betray their community to protect family in Xinjiang because the COVID-19 outbreak threatens those in the detainment camps.
Uighur activist Kerim Zair in his home.
Every two months, the WUC receives over 100 reports of CPC officials allegedly harassing Uighurs living outside of China to inform on their own people. “The past year we have noticed it more than ever,” spokesperson Peter Irwin said. “People are breaking down because they are so mentally exhausted. Many won’t talk to us. We can understand why – families are being targeted because their relatives abroad are criticizing the Communist government.”
Danger does not come from the camps in Xinjiang alone, but from Uighur friends and relatives overseas, too. Not being able to trust neighbours, friends and coworkers leaves the community here riddled with hysteria and paranoia, much like the effect of Stasi mass surveillance in East Germany.
“There is a foreign element to these camps,” Irwin said. “The [Chinese] government can control people abroad as well as in the region.”
VICE UK spoke to 12 British Uighurs, most of whom requested anonymity over fears for their family’s safety. The majority of the Uighurs interviewed have lived in the UK for several years and took British citizenship. Others were born here or moved recently for their studies.
Eleven out of 12 told us that they have developed serious psychological trauma – including paranoia, PTSD, depression, anxiety and night terrors – since the camps first opened. Many admit to concealing their conditions and not seeking medical help.
The alternative – expressing dissent towards the camps and asking questions about vanished family members – could result in severe repercussions for their loved ones if heard by the wrong person.
Traditional Uighur food at Kerim Zair and Dil Kerim's home.
The most recent leaked document from Xinjiang – the Karakax list – shows the Chinese government’s reasons for detaining over 300 Uighurs. It repeatedly shows that Uighurs in Xinjiang are being punished because of the actions of their family abroad, which suggests a network of mass surveillance in the west.
One London-based PhD student left Xinjiang immediately after the inception of the first camps. She originally planned to return home, but recently received a voice note from her mother that said “just stay there, don’t come back”.
She tells me: “The message was a warning. I fell into a deep depression. I want to go to protests but I can’t afford to lose my family. I only ever sign petitions anonymously because it is too dangerous and there are eyes everywhere. Even now, it is difficult to go to sleep.”
Rahima Mehmut, a British activist, translator and singer in the London Uighur Ensemble, was one of the first in the community to come across the detention camps when she translated classified reports of their existence. She is aware of many Uighurs in Britain who have been harassed by Chinese government officials. They, too, are suffering.
“One lady – a British citizen – has developed a heart problem because of the harassment,” she says. “Every morning there was a text message from China reminding her to reply to the local police station [in Xinjiang]… They said if you don’t comply with us then your mother will be taken away.”
Mehmut lost all contact with her family three years ago when they stopped answering her calls. Though she still believes in the power of activism and is trying to bring the fractured London community together, one of her biggest concerns is that “[Uighur] students don’t have the freedom, even in this country, to get together”. She says one student who goes to a “prestigious British university” warned her recently that “our university has already become red” – there is an informant on campus.
Uighur activist Dil Kerim.
Kerim Zair, a British Uighur who moved from Norway to north London, says that he received an anonymous call a few years ago: “They requested that I work for them. I rejected them. At that time I was the head of the Uighur community in Norway. I don’t know how they got my number… it could have been from Uighurs working for the [Chinese] government.”
His daughter, Dil Kerim, refuses to be cowed by the threat of violence and persecution. Though her elderly grandmother and infant cousins are thought to be imprisoned in Chinese camps, Dil says: “We are not afraid.” The “scariest thing”, she admits, “is the unknown”.
Tariq, a Uighur student living in London who requested anonymity, believes the issue is international: “There’s this sense of… paranoia amongst the Uighur community. They’re weary about disclosing their feelings about what’s happening because [Uighurs] were caught in Turkey who were there specifically for the reason of spying. They would infiltrate the community and report back to the Chinese.”
The belief that moles are now deliberately entering diaspora communities to spy on them isn’t uncommon, though it is unclear how many spies there actually are. The Jamestown Foundation, a Washington DC-based research institute, has written of one Xinjiang detainee who was sent to spy on a member of his own family in Europe.
What is clear, however, is the extreme psychological trauma of losing your family and not knowing who to trust within your own community.
“Being part of a community experiencing persecution is detrimental to mental health,” explains Dr. Mina Fazel, an Oxford University lecturer and psychologist. “Worrying about your safety and security in a post-migration environment, and the wellbeing of your family and friends – known as secondary traumatisation – can be significant”.
Kerim Zair's still has a faint scar from his torture in 1989.
Kerim still has a scar from when he was handcuffed, flogged and tortured by the Chinese government in 1989, after protesting for equal rights in his hometown of Xayar. He tears up as he studies photos of his family. All of them disappeared by 2016.
“Not knowing what happens to them causes me stress. I cannot sleep.”
To illustrate this, Kerim tries to call his mother mid-interview. An automated message in Mandarin answers: “The number you’ve dialled is invalid.”
Just a few weeks ago, Dil testified in Parliament on behalf of her father on his arrest, torture and subsequent harassment. As Uighurs across the world celebrate Ramadan, Dil testified again this month during a virtual “solidarity iftar” or breaking-of-the-fast.
However, she warns: “I think members of the Communist Party could be watching because it will be live.” The Chinese embassy in London did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
When asked how to fix the damaged international Uighur community, Tariq tears up. He says: “It gets to me. I don’t think there’s a way to put it into words. There’s anger and there’s frustration and there’s a sense of helplessness. I would like to see bigger diplomatic pressure by the UK government on China. Also, I would like to see more people in the UK caring."
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Update 18/5/20: An interviewee in this article has been anonymised after they expressed fears that they would not be allowed to travel back to China. The piece has also been updated after clarification from Kerim Zair about the protest he attended and his subsequent torture.