As China deepens relations with Saudi Arabia in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Uighur diaspora finds itself in the crosshairs. Riyadh is preparing to deport two Uighurs back to China’s western province of Xinjiang, where they will almost certainly be detained for “re-education” in its vast network of concentration camps for the region’s Turkic inhabitants. Uighurs living in Xinjiang are subject to human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and torture as well as sexual assault and forced sterilization.
Saudi Arabia, a key ally of China in the Arab world, has shown support for Beijing’s crackdown on Uighur culture in the past. During a 2019 visit to China, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, told his hosts: “We respect and support China’s rights to take counter-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security.” Saudi Arabia further endorsed China’s Xinjiang policies in two joint letters to the United Nations in 2019 and 2020.
Arab countries aren’t just supporting China rhetorically, but they also support Beijing in its worldwide campaign of abuses and reprisals against Uighurs. At least six governments in the Arab world—Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the UAE—have detained or extradited Uighurs at China’s behest. According to our dataset at the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, around 292 Uighurs have been detained or deported from Arab states at China’s behest since 2002.
These were most common in the recent past. China’s repressive practices against the Uighur diaspora have expanded dramatically since Chinese President Xi Jinping unleashed his “people’s war on terror” in 2014. Our research shows that at least 1,327 people have been arrested or rendered inhumane from more than 20 countries around the world since 2014. Most of them are Muslims-majority nations. Uighurs can be arrested for links to the Arab World. Algorithmic surveillance systems flag individuals who have ties to Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
China used international organizations like Interpol (the world’s police agency) and bilateral extradition agreements to pursue Uighurs. It is interesting to see the case of Idris Hazan (also called Aishan Yideresi), who was arrested in Morocco in July 2021. Hasan is a computer scientist who was detained by Turkish authorities. He worked as a translator for Uighur human right organizations in Turkey. After China sent an Interpol Red Notice containing false allegations of terroristic acts against Hasan, he was detained at Casablanca Airport on July 19, and taken to Tiflet prison. Interpol suspended the Red Notice on August 2021, but Moroccan courts proceeded to try Hasan according to an extradition treaty signed with China in 2016—part of a strategic partnership agreement between the two countries that included economic and financial investments. The Court of Cassation in Morocco ruled Hasan’s extradition was ordered on December 16th 2021. However, he was still in custody at publication.
Hasan’s case is not the first or even most blatant example of China’s powerful reach in the Arab world. As they sought to flee Egypt, more than 200 Uighur people were detained by Egyptian police. The majority were Uighur students studying at al-Azhar University. It is an Islamic university which has existed in Cairo since over 1,000 years. A large number were taken to Tora, the notorious “Scorpion Prison,” where Egyptian political prisoners are usually sent. We spoke with detainees and learned that Chinese intelligence officers also interrogated Uighurs at these locations alongside Egyptian counterparts.
According to our findings in the report “Beyond Silence: Collaboration Between Arab States and China in the Transnational Repression of Uyghurs,” published with the Oxus Society and Uighur Human Rights Project, at least 76 of these detained Uighurs were deported to China. In interviews with the authors, Uighurs who fled the crackdown in Egypt thought al-Azhar University would protect them, but were left “astonished” when police came for them. Two Uighur students were taken into police custody upon their return to China.
Even the Hajj pilgrimage, required by all Muslims is now unsafe. Uighurs have been lured to Saudi Arabia’s Mecca and Medina by a group of Muslim believers. Osman Ahmad Tohti was a Uighur who had legal residence in Turkey and Saudi Arabia and was being conducted the hajj. He was then forcibly repatriated from China. Since then, he has been silent. China’s intelligence services have also used the pilgrimage to bait Uighurs in safe European jurisdictions. Omer Rozi from Norway claims his mother was forced to leave the country.AChinese police made jj and Omer was called three times daily to urge him to come along.
Uighurs in China could be facing dire consequences if there are transnational technological links between Beijing and the Arab World. In 2019, a Uighur was reportedly stopped at mainland China’s border with Hong Kong and interrogated for three days because someone on his WeChat contact list had “checked in” at Mecca. In the past, Uighurs conducting the hajj have been given state-issued tracking devices in the form of “smartcards” attached to lanyards around their necks.
The United Arab Emirates, which enjoys one of the strongest relationships with China in the Arab world, has emerged as a regional intelligence hub for China’s security services. In August 2021, Jasur Abibula, a Netherlands-based Uighur and former husband of Asiye Abdulahed—who rose to prominence for leaking the “China Cables” about the mass incarceration program in Xinjiang—said he was lured to Dubai where he met with two Chinese intelligence officers. The agents reportedly handed him a USB and instructed him to insert it into his ex-wife’s computer to infect it with spyware. Beijing uses its power over the UAE’s Uighur population to gather biometric information and other forms ID. Ahmad Talip, a UAE citizen detained by police in 2018, told Amannisa Abdullah his story. The Dubai police had taken a sample of Ahmad Talip’s blood at the request from the Chinese government. Amannisa was notified shortly thereafter that Talip had disappeared. Talip was sent to China where he was arrested and deported. This biometric data is consistent with conversations that I had with Uighurs from the UAE. They claim to have been sent WeChat messages by Chinese officials asking for photographs or other documents. To ensure compliance, pressure is frequently applied to their families by Xinjiang.
Biden must make use of its power to rally its Arab partners behind the mission if it wants China to face up to Xinjiang. With its Magnitsky Act targeted sanctions, the U.S. holds a lot of power to sanction security officers involved in illegal repulement. As the long arm of China’s surveillance state reaches Uighurs residing in like-minded autocracies, it is more crucial than ever before that the U.S. offer safe haven to this oppressed group by granting Uighur refugees protected status and raising refugee quotas.
China’s campaign of repression against the Uighurs is not confined to Xinjiang. The U.S. should continue to make efforts to stop a rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis.
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