China: Repression at home, repatriation abroad: the predicament of Tibetans and Uyghurs

By Michael Caster

While many of today’s refugees are escaping major conflicts, certain communities are fleeing not sudden crises but protracted and continuous persecution by their own governments – persecution that in some cases has persisted over multiple generations. This is the case for China’s sizeable Tibetan and Uyghur minorities, both groups who in the face of profound discrimination have been forced to leave their homelands for countries elsewhere. But while millions of Tibetans and Uyghurs have been uprooted by development projects, security crackdowns or forced sedentarization, those seeking to leave the country altogether face a very different challenge: the state’s restriction of their right to free movement.

Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang and Tibet have produced tens of thousands of Tibetan and Uyghur refugees fleeing persecution. While the number leaving the country has decreased in recent years, this does not mean that their situation within China has improved: on the contrary, it is the result of increasingly successful restrictions of movement and China’s international pressure on host or transfer states, despite freedom of movement being enshrined in international law.

The Passport Law of the People’s Republic of China designates the Ministry of Public Security as the passport- issuing authority – a cause for concern, given the extent of police abuse and lack of accountability, and its granting of the power to seize the passports of individuals ‘where necessary for handling a case.’ Yet in recent years, the blanket seizure of passports or arbitrarily prolonged processing of applications in Tibet and Xinjiang have exceeded even the extensive measures permitted in domestic law, forcing Tibetans and Uyghurs fleeing persecution to rely on perilous migration routes or human smuggling networks, in the process introducing new threats and exploitation. The prices paid to smugglers vary significantly, but the overall amount has been increasing as China makes it harder for Tibetans and those assisting them.

Beyond financial constraints, Tibetan refugees must contend with the serious environmental and health challenges of Himalayan crossings. It is common for refugees to arrive in Nepal and India with severe exposure and frostbite, or to have lost family members during the journey or soon after arrival following complications related to the trip. Tibetan women refugees are especially vulnerable to sexual and gender based violence. Medical examiners at the Kathmandu reception centre, for example, have reported that rape of Tibetan women by Nepali police is common, but the fear of deportation back to China keeps many from reporting rape.

Newly arrived Tibetan women refugees in India and those among the diaspora face intersectional insecurities. The fact that many Tibetan refugees arrive speaking a combination of Tibetan dialects and Chinese creates further obstacles to integration, as English and Hindi are needed to secure economic livelihood. This creates vulnerabilities for women in even basic daily interactions. Language barriers, combined with race- and gender-based structural inequality, increases Tibetan women’s vulnerability to financial exploitation and the risks of sexual harassment in India, a situation that can create dependencies on male spouses.

While issues such as domestic violence and other gender issues have typically been overlooked, as is the case throughout the subcontinent, recently the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) has taken strides in addressing women’s empowerment. In December 2016, for instance, 20 Tibetan nuns were awarded the Geshema degree, the highest academic title in Tibetan Buddhism – a historic moment, as the title had previously only been conferred on monks. In addition, in February 2017 the CTA hosted its first ever women’s empowerment conference and released a seven-point policy on Tibetan women’s empowerment. While the Tibetan Feminist Collective criticized the conference for its shortage of women represented on panels, it nevertheless represented an important milestone in terms of raising public awareness on gender within the Tibetan diaspora community.

Like Tibetans, Uyghur refugees for many years were forced to rely on perilous Himalayan routes. Recalling his childhood experience as part of the first major refugee flow from Xinjiang in 1949, Arslan Alptekin, son of Uyghur leader Isa Yusuf Alptekin, recalled passing the frozen corpses of other refugees. Alptekin lost several toes during his journey, due to frostbite. Over time, refugee routes for Uyghurs moved through Central Asia, but increasing Chinese pressure on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has forced Uyghur refugees to again adapt new routes and become more reliant on elaborate human smuggling networks through South East Asia. From Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, the destination is typically Turkey and a journey can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year and a half, passing from one smuggler network to another, each demanding additional funds accompanied by threats for failure to pay. The accumulated costs, particularly for a group, can be astronomical: one family of six, for example, told the World Uyghur Congress they ended up spending almost US$100,000 in order to make it to Turkey.

Some countries along this route, such as Thailand, have adopted increasingly harsh policies towards Uyghur refugees in their country, with some detained for extended periods before facing further uncertainties, including deportation and family separation. In 2015, for instance, after holding them for more than a year in immigration detention centres, Bangkok freed some 170 mostly women and children Uyghur refugees and sent them to Turkey, only shortly before forcibly repatriating 109 Uyghur men and boys to China. Many of the women who were sent to Turkey were given children from those subsequently forced back to China. One woman who made it to Turkey estimated that some 40 children went to Turkey without at least one of their parents or both.

Men and women refugees are typically separated following detention in South East Asia, with children generally kept with the women. While both men and women Uyghur refugees arriving in Turkey have found it difficult to find work or send their children to school, the burden is understandably greater for those women who took on the children of others. The separation of families increases vulnerabilities for those remaining or forced to return to China. Uyghur refugees, migrants and even exchange students in Turkey also recount feeling constantly under pressure from China. One Uyghur student who had become a Turkish citizen explains, ‘In China there is too much oppression. When we come here it is still strong. All Uyghur people have this kind of feeling... People are afraid to speak with each other.’

China’s systematic internationalization of pressure over refugee communities and its policy of forcing returns from host countries is the result of a long evolution in propaganda and repressive measures. A 1996 Communist Party document concerning the maintenance of stability in Xinjiang called for limiting overseas Uyghur activities, specifically identifying Turkey, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and called on China to develop bilateral cooperation, maintain pressure and establish home bases in such regions. This has also been the case for Tibetans, as revealed in a statement by State Council Information Office Director Zhao Qizheng on Tibet-related external propaganda leaked in 2001. Zhao called for a multi- pronged coordinated assault, in which China should use its departments of foreign affairs, information, security, law, religion, culture and others to expand Tibet-related external propaganda. An illustration of the extent of China’s reach was the February 2017 arrest in Sweden of a man on suspicion of spying on Tibetan refugees for China. Speaking of the impact of China’s intrusive measures over refugee and diaspora communities, Dolkun Isa, General Secretary of the World Uyghur Congress, notes that it has made it difficult for him to work as an advocate for Uyghur rights internationally as he cannot travel to states that may be supportive but that have tenuous relations with China: ‘It is often these states that are in the best position to speak about these issues and to support NGOs and others who do this, but cannot do so for fear of causing diplomatic problems for themselves,’ Isa explains.

This strategy of the Chinese government, implemented over the last 20 years, has not only caused decreasing support for Tibetan and Uyghur issues abroad, including for refugees, but has also weakened the rule of law internationally. Countries including Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan and Uzbekistan have closed their borders, imposed discriminatory refugee policies or collaborated with China to forcibly repatriate Tibetans and Uyghurs. And for the communities themselves, caught between a repressive environment at home and insurmountable barriers overseas, the situation continues to deteriorate – leaving many with little hope of a better future.

You can find this case study in MRG’s new report No escape from discrimination: Minorities, indigenous peoples and the crisis of displacement

Photo credit: Evgeni Zotov

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Date: 13/12/2017




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