2 September 2021

Afghanistan’s Uyghurs face a double threat – we must not forget them

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Since the Taliban’s lightning-quick takeover of Afghanistan, much ink has been spilled about the grave threat the militants pose to ethnic and religious minorities. One group has, however, been largely overlooked – the Uyghurs.

Although there are larger populations in fellow Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, the Uyghur population in Afghanistan is thought to number only 2,000 people – based in places such as the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in the northern Balkh province. Many of Afghanistan’s Uyghurs are second-generation immigrants whose parents fled China many decades ago – but their Afghan ID cards include references to their ethnicity and asylum background – ‘Uyghur’ or ‘Chinese refugee’. 

Since the Taliban regained control after the breathtakingly reckless withdrawal of American forces, Uyghurs in the country are anxious over heightened Chinese control and influence. There are around 12 million Uyghurs in China, concentrated in the country’s north-western Xinjiang province. Since 2017, they have been subjected to a state campaign of mass detention, surveillance, and forced labour – and according to several reputable sources, systematic torture and sexual violence. The Chinese Communist party (CCP) routinely denies all human rights abuses in Xinjiang, claiming that its ‘re-education facilities’ are vocational centres designed to combat religious extremism which poses a fundamental threat to domestic security. 

Needless to say, Afghanistan’s Uyghurs are right to be concerned about the CCP’s intentions, particularly as Beijing has in recent years extended its crackdown on Uyghurs beyond its own national borders. The Chinese state has deployed a range of aggressive methods to silence its Uyghur critics, or in some cases even detain and render them back to Xinjiang province. Data published in June by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) suggests at least 395 Uyghurs have been deported, extradited, or rendered since 1997 (though the actual figure may be notably higher). China’s transnational repression of Uyghurs has been on a consistently upward trajectory for decades, but has accelerated dramatically in line with its anti-Uyghur campaign in Xinjiang.

China has also invested considerable energy and resources in fostering closer diplomatic ties with states in the Central Asian region. This is motivated by both economic interests and ‘socio-cultural’ considerations. It is worth noting that Uyghur communities in those Central Asian countries have been targeted by an alliance of foreign Chinese-state agents and domestic police forces. Chinese companies active in creating the totalitarian surveillance infrastructure in Xinjiang province have supplied technology, including facial-recognition systems, to Central Asian security services. The governments of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan have all purchased cameras from Chinese corporations to monitor their citizens. This technology, used extensively to track the movements of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, has proliferated across Central Asia under the Chinese communist state’s transnational-repression strategy. 

This ‘security’ co-operation has been accompanied by a sharp increase in Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) into Central Asia, which these leaves countries in the region ever more reliant on Beijing’s largesse. In international politics, however, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and there’s little doubt China will want to extract concessions and favours in return. 

The same is true in Afghanistan. China’s foreign minister has already held talks with the Taliban and Beijing is positioning itself as a leading player in the country’s economic future. Given China’s tactics in other parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan’s Uyghurs will  understandably be extremely uneasy about what the future holds. 

What can the West, which has failed so spectacularly at nation-building, do to help?

If anything, the chaotic nature of the withdrawal makes it even more incumbent on liberal democracies to do what they can to help those now in the greatest danger. Existing refugee resettlement schemes towards Afghanistan should prioritise members of ethnic minorities at risk of persecution, the Uyghurs included. Western countries should also explore opportunities to expand asylum programmes which allow Uyghurs to escape from third countries that are actively collaborating with the Chinese communist regime. Where possible, Western governments should also explore stricter restrictions on the exportation of surveillance technology that can be put to use by repressive regimes.

It’s a sad fact of Afghanistan’s new reality that almost a vast number of its people could claim asylum from the Taliban’s barbarity. But amid the understandable clamour, we in the West must not forget one of the world’s most persecuted peoples.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.