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Since the 1950s, hundreds of Uyghurs have fled from China to Afghanistan to escape the political and religious persecution under the Chinese government. They are a Turkish Muslim minority group, and about 12 million live in the Northwestern Xinjiang province known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The Afghanistan Uyghurs are immigrants whose parents fled China. Uyghurs are now desperate to leave Afghanistan as the Taliban secure their grip on the country. But they also fear deportation by the Taliban to China.
Since 2017, Uyghurs have been victims of a state surveillance campaign, detention, forced labor, rape, and torture. Of course, China denies all human rights abuses allegations in Xinjiang and says the camps are vocational centers to fight extremism. Their greatest fear is if the Taliban will help China control their movements, arrest them, and hand them over to China.
A separatist group linked to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was accused by China of seeking to create an independent state for Uyghurs. The Chinese government blamed ETIM for the violent attacks in China and, in 2016, at its Kyrgyzstan embassy.
Uyghurs traveled to Afghanistan and Syria and fought side by side with the insurgents there. Experts claimed that the Taliban have worked with the Pakistan government and China to monitor Uyghurs fighter groups for decades.
Last week, the Islamic State in Khorasan accused Uyghur members of its involvement in a suicide bombing of a mosque in northern Afghanistan Kunduz province that killed dozens of worshipers. However, there was no sign that the Taliban incorporated the Uyghurs’ fighters into their forces.
Just the same, China fears the Uyghur separatist fighters might train in Afghanistan to attack them, which is why they sought a commitment from the Taliban to keep it from happening. In July, Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a top Taliban leader. He pledged he would not allow any group to harm China or use Afghanistan to train.
The Uyghurs in Afghanistan are worried about the Taliban leaders’ visit to China as the Chinese government might push the Islamist group to deport them. Uyghurs claimed harassment by Afghanistan’s new leaders. Moreover, they are afraid that the Taliban fighters will marry their daughters.
Afghanistan had been a refuge and home to Uyghurs who left Communist Party-ruled China. Uyghurs do not profess Islam as the Taliban do, as they are more focused on gender equality and their children’s career paths and futures. Shariah law is not the ultimate authority in their lives.
And yet, Uyghurs have been under suspicion that they are working with the militants. The U.S. arrested 22 Uyghurs in Afghanistan, thought to be working with al-Qaida in 2001, and sent them to Guantánamo Bay. After months and years of interrogation, the U.S. realized that these people were innocent.
Most Uyghurs still live within China’s borders, but some regularly cross the Wakhan corridor to Afghanistan as international merchants or pilgrimages to Mecca. However, most of these movements stopped in 1949 with the arrival of the People’s Republic of China.
Written by Janet Grace Ortigas
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware
NPR: Afghan Uyghurs whose families fled China now fear the Taliban could deport them; by Emily Feng
BBC News: Afghanistan’s Uyghurs fear the Taliban, and now China too; by Joel Gunter
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Sasha India’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image Courtesy of Jack Fitzsimmons’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License