Uyghur children whose parents or guardians have been detained in political re-education camps are being held in ‘terrible’ conditions in orphanages in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, and overcrowding has forced authorities to send them to facilities in the country’s inner provinces, according to sources.
Since April, thousands of Uyghurs accused of harboring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” views have been detained in a vast network of re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group complain of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Sources believe there are virtually no majority ethnic Han Chinese held in the Xinjiang camps, and that the number of detainees in the region’s south—where the highest concentration of Uyghurs are based—far surpasses that in the north.
A Uyghur officer at a police station in Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture’s Peyziwat (Jiashi) county recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that local government officials were deciding the fates of children who had been left behind after their guardians had been sent for re-education.
“Children who were left without parents are being cared for by their relatives, and district committees are in charge of those who have no relatives to care for them,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
An official at the Peyziwat county government office refused to answer questions about the children of detained Uyghurs, but a staff member at the Chasa Street neighborhood committee in Kashgar city told RFA that those who have no guardians to care for them are being sent to orphanages.
“Those children are being looked after by orphanages through arrangement by the government,” said the staff member, who asked to remain unnamed.
“No one has the authority to make a decision about these children except the government,” he added, before hanging up the phone.
A Han Chinese staff member at the Central Orphanage of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in the regional capital Urumqi, refused to provide any information about how the government was caring for children of detained Uyghurs, but sources in other parts of the region told RFA of situations similar to that in Kashgar prefecture.
A teacher at a primary school in neighboring Aksu (Akesu) prefecture’s Kuchar (Kuche) county said that the headmaster was making arrangements for children there.
“If the children were already registered at the school, then the school would accept responsibility for them,” she said, adding that other children in the prefecture were being sent to orphanages, though she did not know how the decisions were being made.
Sources in Hotan (Hetian) prefecture’s Qaraqash (Moyu) county—where officials last week said they had been ordered to send 40 percent of area residents to re-education camps—also told RFA that the children of detained parents were being brought to schools or nurseries for care, in addition to orphanages.
A Uyghur worker at a regional orphanage in southern Xinjiang, who requested anonymity, said his facility was seriously overcrowded and described the conditions there as “terrible.”
“Because there are so many children, they are locked up like farm animals in a shed,” he said.
“We receive a lot of cash donations from the public, but only a very little is spent on the children.”
The worker said that some of the money is used to decorate a few rooms and “dress up” some of the children for advertising on television.
The orphanage also saves money by giving the children meat only once a week, he said, while the rest of the time they are provided with “rice soup.”
“In the past we didn’t have so many children, but now there are too many,” he said.
According to the worker, “a large number of children” whose parents were sent to re-education camps, had arrived in the last month, including kids aged six months to 12 years old.
Authorities in Xinjiang’s northern prefectures, such as Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous prefecture and in Tarbaghatay (Tacheng) prefecture, are “more relaxed” about placing Uyghurs in re-education camps, the worker said, but added that he had heard “their orphanages are overcrowded too.”
With all of the overcrowding at orphanages around the region, authorities “are moving children to mainland China,” he said, though he was unsure of where they were being sent.
“They are making the excuse that they are providing them with free food, accommodation and schooling,” he added.
With security so tight in Xinjiang, “it isn’t possible” for parents who have been released from re-education camps to look for their children in the orphanages, the worker said.
“In the current climate, not even a bird can fly in and out freely,” he said.
“You’d better not ask any more questions, otherwise you place the person answering them in jeopardy, and other people they come into contact with will also get into trouble.”
Last month, sources told RFA that political re-education camps in Ghulja (Yining) county, in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, and Korla (Kuerle) city, in neighboring Bayin’gholin Mongol (Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture, hold at least 3,600 inmates deemed “politically incorrect” by local authorities.
The camps are labeled “career development centers” in a bid to mask their true nature, they said, but the detainees held there are rarely freed, despite undergoing months of “training.”
Officials told RFA last week that authorities in Korla are also detaining Uyghurs in re-education camps for traveling overseas where they are “influenced by extremism and other things,” and refusing to free them until they admit it was “wrong” to have left the country.
New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch has called on the Chinese government to free the thousands of Uyghurs placed in the camps since April and close them down.
The camps—where inmates who have not broken any laws are detained extrajudicially, indefinitely and without the knowledge of their families—run contrary to China’s constitution and violate international human rights law, Human Rights Watch noted.
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.
While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja and Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma and Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.