The U.S. Admitted Zero Uyghur Refugees Last Year. Here’s Why

Both the Biden and Trump Administrations repeatedly condemned China’s persecution of Uyghurs and formally declared the country’s treatment of the mostly Muslim minority group a genocide. Trump Administration approved the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020. This law imposes sanctions against individuals and organizations responsible for Uyghur rights violations. The Uyghurs were recently recognized by the Biden Administration as a priority refugee group.

All that talk, however, is mainly just talk.

In the last two fiscal years, America has received zero Uyghur refugees. In FY2019, only one Chinese national was admitted to the U.S. as a refugee; it is unclear if that individual was a member of the Uyghur minority, which mostly live in China’s northwest region of Xinjiang.
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Experts say the main reason for the lack of Uyghur refugees is logistical: it’s next to impossible for Uyghurs in China, most of whom are under extraordinary state surveillance, to access refugee resettlement systems. China puts immense pressure on the countries where Uyghurs are able to flee for asylum to allow them to resettle their refugees.

Some argue, however, that U.S. lawmakers have put themselves in a moral quandary by adopting genocide rhetoric without offering more effective humanitarian assistance. “Why would you want to make a lot of noise about increasing the allowance for refugees when that just might be a meaningless gesture that maybe leads China to be even tougher in the way it treats Uyghurs at home?” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

Accessing refugee system

China detained millions of Uyghurs at large in China’s mass detention camps over the past few years. Around 11 million others live in constant fear, The New York has revealed. Times. Escaped Uyghurs have spoken out about the brutal abuses they suffered inside camps. They were subject to beatings and forced sterilization.

Continue reading: What to Know About China’s Crackdown on a Muslim Minority Group

China is pressuring all countries, including those in Asia, to bring back Uyghurs who fled China illegally since 2015. In 2015, Thailand returned about 100 Uyghurs to China, and in 2017, Egypt returned about two dozen “who promptly disappeared upon arriving in China,” according to the State Department. “The Chinese government is probably one of the few in the world that persecutes a minority and wants to catch them abroad,” says Maya WangSenior China researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “For Uyghurs, there is really no where for them to go.”

TIME received a statement from the U.S. State Department stating that Uyghurs located outside China have access to the refugee program. It does not disclose how many applications are currently under consideration.

Some members of Congress have begun pressuring Biden’s State Department to do more to protect Uyghurs who have escaped China’s borders. In an Oct. 21 letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, 16 members of Congress called on the department to step up pressure on foreign countries “to end all deportation efforts to Xinjiang and to ensure the safety of those who do not wish to return.”

Continue reading: Rebuilding America Biden can seize the opportunity to establish a Refugee Resettlement program

Yet, the mere fact of refugee resettlement isn’t enough to end the persecution against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. This would require more pressure from the world’s leaders as well as a cooperative Chinese government. The Chinese government is not changing their tactics and has shown no sign of change. “Refugee resettlement isn’t addressing root causes, that’s not what this is about,” says Bill FrelickD.The Refugee and Migrant Rights Division of Human Rights Watch is the author. This international NGO investigates abuses in human rights around the globe. “This is a tool to help rescue people who need protection, who can’t find protection in the place where they’ve landed.”

The path to success

Addressing the central issue—helping Uyghurs inside China to access refugee systems—may be nearly impossible given the geopolitics in the region, experts say. The U.S. government has some options, however.

O’Hanlon and Frelick pointed, for example, at the Trump Administration’s decision to lower annual refugee caps and gut refugee and resettlement programs. In FY21, which ended in September, only 11,411 refugees total were admitted to the U.S.—the lowest since the program began in 1980. FY20 saw 11,814 refugees admitted to the U.S., which was only slightly more than in FY20. While those dismal numbers can’t explain the lack of Uyghur refugees altogether, the low caps certainly didn’t help, they say.

These trends have been reversed by the Biden administration in the recent months. The Biden Administration has begun to rebuild resettlement programmes and increased the refugee ceiling in FY22 from 125,000 to 120,000, which is the highest level since 1993 when admissions were limited to 142,000.

Continue reading: Chinese Officials Defend Xinjiang Camps as a ‘Pioneering’ Approach for Fighting Terrorism

Wang claims that the U.S. has the ability to do more in order to speed up the Uyghurs’ resettlement. Those who have fled China and who have already been in the U.S. sometimes must wait five or more years before they’re granted refugee status. “The long wait times, to me, seem to suggest a mismatch between rhetoric and actual commitment,” she says. “If the U.S.’s commitment towards refugees and asylum seekers, including those from Xinjiang, are real…efforts should be made to make it easier for asylum seekers and refugees to make a life here [in the U.S.] after they fled.”

Meanwhile, O’Hanlon and others argue that U.S. officials should be careful about the language they use to both describe the Uyghur crisis and offer help. O’Hanlon has been critical of the U.S.’s decision to describe China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide, on the grounds that such rhetoric heightens tensions and makes global conflict more likely—without actually aiding the Uyghur population.

Certain [the U.S. has] been prepared to put on sanctions over the Uyghur issue, and to call out China, but they’ve also been nervous about letting this relationship deteriorate too much,” O’Hanlon says. “I think [Biden] should be selective in use of language…and look for ways to be constructive and address the problem rather than inflaming passions on both sides in a way that’s likely to just make the problem worse.”

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