The Uighur Muslim Crisis: Detainment and Secrecy

Uighurs’ detainment in Xinjiang, China is a stark reminder of past atrocities. What’s happening and how can we stop the crisis?

Nowadays, many people take their rights and freedoms for granted. However, it is important to understand that this is a luxury for a select few, as not everyone is this lucky. The Uighur Muslim Crisis is just one example of a minority group being systematically repressed and stripped of their rights.

As of 2017, concentration camps within the Xinjiang region of China have interned at least 1 million Uighurs. The Chinese government has subjected this minority group to inhumane treatment and many nations have begun to speak out against their actions.

However, China refutes these allegations and claims that they have implemented a “re-education” system to eliminate extremist ideologies within these populations. The number of accounts of barbaric treatment of the detainees continues to increase, and it has become more and more evident that the Uighurs are facing a “genocide”.

What Is Happening to the Uighurs?

The Uighur Muslims are a minority group within the Xinjiang region of China. This region is also officially known as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and due to its position in Central Asia, as well as its valuable oil reserves, stability in the region is of the utmost importance to the Chinese government. It so happens that this region is also home to about 12 million Uighurs.

Near the start of the 21st century, many of the people in Xinjiang began to fight for a free “East Turkestan” state and separatist sentiment began to spread throughout the regionThere have been accounts of separatist uprisings that have led to the deaths of Chinese officials and Beijing has directly blamed the Uighur population for many bombing incidents across the nation. From the view of the Chinese government, many Uighurs have known ties to terrorist organizations, and are stirring tension in the region. China claims to be fighting to suppress these terrorists, known as the East Turkestan Forces. Furthermore, many western experts have noted that some Uighurs have “trained or fought with the Taliban and Afghanistan” and Chinese intel suggest there are direct links between the Uighur separatists and Osama bin Laden, according to Moneyhon. Build up of tension in the region has sparked violence and has led to lots of conflict. According to one article by BBC in 2009, about 200 people had died in conflicts related to clashes with the state in Xinjiang. In response to this, the Chinese government increased their efforts to suppress these conflicts and conducted a large-scale security crackdown in the region, after which minimal protests have occurred.

A shot of a “re-education centre” with observation towers, surrounded with barbed wire fencing (BBC).

Part of China’s plan involved setting up what they claim to be “re-education” centres. China built these centres to eradicate extremist ideologies and reform people into skilled, law-abiding citizens. However, what qualifies people to become “enrolled” at these institutions is less clear. There have been many accounts of China sending people to these institutions for simply practicing their faith. One woman claimed that the government sent her to one of these institutions for a year just for having WhatsApp on her phone. Many others have been detained for practicing their faith through daily prayers or sending verses from the Quran to others on conversation platforms. In other words, many Uighurs are being arbitrarily detained and forced to remain at these institutions, separated from their families for extended periods of time.

On top of being arbitrarily detained, the brutal treatment of the Uighurs has grabbed the attention of the world. Many Uighurs who have been fortunate enough to escape these camps have reported accounts of physical, mental, and sexual torture. Many have also claimed that they had to renounce their faith and declare their loyalty towards China’s Communist Party – the CCP.

Although the CCP has made some institutions available to journalists, many high-security camps are off-limits. In an interview by a BBC reporter, one woman, who was able to escape a higher-security internment camp and eventually fled China, stated that she was chained by her legs for a week and forced to undergo harsh beatings and torture. Furthermore, the camps separate many detainees from their families for indefinite periods of time, causing major disruptions to their lives. Although there have been minimal accounts of Uighur detainees visiting their loved ones, these regulated visits are only about one night a week and detainees face heavy restrictions. Many children of unreleased, detained parents stay in orphanages, unable to contact their parents and living without knowing whether they will be able to see them again.

Although the Chinese government sticks to the claim that these camps are “re-education” centres, there is much evidence that suggests that the crackdown on the Uighur Muslim population is far worse than the CCP would like to confess. In 2019, leaked files containing about 403 pages of documents, collectively known as the Secret Speeches, provided further evidence of the atrocities committed in Xinjiang. These papers revealed classified intel about the reality of the detainment in Xinjiang and the harsh conditions these people are facing.

Those with detained family members began to question what happened to their loved ones, with officials telling them that “they’re in a training school set up by the government”. However, these officials were also advised to encourage silence regarding the detainment by saying, “I’m sure that you will support them, because this is for their own good and also for your own good”. Many young adults were told that their parents had been infected with the virus of Islamic extremism and that, for their parents, “freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated and they are in good health”. Put simply, many Uighurs are being separated from their families and those fortunate enough to avoid detainment are threatened into silence.

John Sudworth, a BBC reporter, was allowed to visit one of these institutions where the detainees have their beliefs reformed. Throughout the day, the detainees are forced to learn Mandarin, how to abide by the law, and sing songs pledging their allegiance to the CCP. Every interview conducted by the team with a detainee was conducted with the supervision of an official. In one of these interviews, they asked one detainee whether they had committed a crime that led to their enrolment in this institution. They replied, “I have not committed a crime. I just made a mistake”.

At this specific centre, most detainees appeared to be healthy and participated in a variety of activities, such as dance and art, and many vocational skills as well, such as preparing beds and learning to cut hair. Nevertheless, many sections of the institution were off-limits to the reporter and surrounded with barbed wire and when Sudworth and his team tried to investigate what went on in these isolated areas, they were turned back repeatedly. After further investigation around the compound, the reporters were able to find some hidden graffiti that read “Oh my heart don’t break”.

Sudworth’s team manages to take a photo of the “reality” inside the camps (BBC).

From these accounts, it has become evident that the Uighurs are being stripped of their rights and cultural practices and forced to attend these institutions, causing them to be separated from their loved ones. Unfortunately, the situation is not getting any better. One report suggests that many detainees are being moved to higher-security institutions, including prisons or compounds for forced labour.

Inside the camps, Uighurs learn many vocational skills in order to become law-abiding, working-class citizens once they are done with their education (BBC).

In response to these atrocities, many nations have begun to speak up against the actions of the CCP. Multiple member states of the UN have condemned China’s policies, with countries such as the US, Canada, the Netherlands, and the UK declaring that the CCP is committing genocide against the Uighurs. Some fashion outlets, such as H&M, have even banned cotton exports from regions of forced Uighur labour. Although these are steps in the right direction, there is much left to be done to insure the Uighurs receive justice they deserve.

What Can We Do to Stop This?

When we discover human rights violations around the world, it is up to the people to take a stand and advocate for justice. It is our moral duty to fight for what is right and ensure that people around the world are free from oppression and violence. But what we can do to stop the genocide of the Uighurs in China?

One of the most powerful rights we have is the freedom of speech. Speaking up against what is happening to the Uighurs is fundamental to spreading awareness about the issue. Many of us can also donate towards Uighur support groups, which could provide food and shelter to Uighurs who are able to escape these camps.

Additionally, nations can support Uighurs through refugee programs, which take in Uighurs who have fled to countries like Turkey and Kazakhstan. These countries can also continue to stand up against China’s actions at the UN and form a coalition that acts against the arbitrary detainment of Uighurs (Ward). Additionally, placing sanctions on cotton exports was a bold move made by many organizations. Nations should continue to uphold these sanctions as a stand against Uighur forced labour.

Furthermore, many of the technologies used for surveillance and suppressing the Uighurs come from companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Intel, based in the US. These firms can limit access to cutting-edge technology that China could use to oppress the Uighurs and ban Chinese companies with links to the Uighur genocide from purchasing this equipment (Ward).

Moreover, nations can use many pressure points as leverage against China, such as the 2022 Winter Olympics, which are set to be held in Beijing. Convincing potential sponsors to back away from supporting the Olympics in Beijing could lead to a lack of funding for the event or, at least, a hit to their finances. Regardless, limiting sponsorship of the Beijing Olympics would be a statement against China’s actions in Xinjiang.


Although we are far from solving the Uighur Muslim Crisis, the world is taking steps to stand up against the atrocities committed in Xinjiang. With undeniable evidence of the harsh treatment in these internment camps, it has become clear that there is much more happening at these “re-education centres” than the Chinese government would like to admit. Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist, once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Ultimately, those with a voice must do their best to help the Uighurs, as it is only when the people stand up against these crimes that the Uighurs will finally receive the freedom they deserve.

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