A Uyghur man facing deportation to China from Qatar last week said Wednesday that his decision to flee Pakistan was prompted by claims that nine members of his ethnic group had been forcibly returned home from the South Asian nation, where he ran a company with ties to a Beijing-backed infrastructure plan.
Ablikim Yusup, 53, arrived safely in the U.S. on Tuesday with the help of U.S. Embassy officials after initially trying to reach Europe by way of Bosnia, which refused him entry because his special China travel document—papers issued by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to people who are legally defined as Chinese citizens for their travel to China and other countries—was not recognized there.
He was sent last week to Qatar, which then said it would deport him to Beijing, according to media reports, prompting him to appeal for days for help on social media posts from Qatar’s Doha International Airport, saying that he feared for his safety if sent back to China.
A day after arriving in Washington, Yusup told RFA’s Uyghur Service that despite being a resident of Pakistan, where he lived with his wife and young son, and running a successful import and export business that received contracts related to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) overseas infrastructure project, he feared that he was in danger of being deported to China, where he could face persecution.
“There were a lot of Uyghurs in Pakistan, and some started to disappear,” he said.
“I knew a Pakistani man who took me to his friend’s place for business. There were others there, and one of them was a former or current military official in plainclothes. After I was introduced as a Chinese citizen from [China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR)], he spoke in Urdu, assuming that I didn’t understand, and said that Pakistan had just recently deported nine Uyghurs to China.”
According to Yusup, the military official said that deporting Uyghurs from Pakistan to China was “easy.”
“He said, ‘We just round them up by holding them by their necks, and China pays for it [deporting them],” Yusup told RFA.
“I was shocked, and thought they might come for me soon, so I started to keep a low profile.”
Yusup said he also recently learned that his assets had been frozen, presumably at the order of Beijing.
“I did a lot of work related to the BRI, but they had no honor,” he said, apparently referring to Chinese officials who had contracted his company.
“They froze my bank accounts in Pakistan and with the Bank of China. They are shameless. But it is OK because as long as I remain alive, there is hope.”
Another factor Yusup said had influenced his decision to flee Pakistan was that several Pakistani women had married Han Chinese living in the country who pretended to be Muslim, only to find out they had lied, and that this had led to animosity against all Chinese citizens.
“The locals did not know the difference between [Han] Chinese and Uyghurs—they would just call all of us Chinese and started to hate us,” he said, adding that the atmosphere in Pakistan had become such that “I could not go outside freely.”
Uyghurs in Pakistan
Uyghurs have been migrating to Pakistan since the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work as traders or escape persecution under Beijing’s rule in the XUAR, and Uyghur exile groups estimate that there is currently a population of up to 3,000 Uyghurs in the country.
China’s influence in the country is substantial, in part due to a U.S. $62 billion investment in the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will connect the seat of the XUAR’s Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture to southern Pakistan’s Gwadar port, as well as pledges of financial aid.
Members of the Uyghur community in Pakistan have reported that they endure intimidation by Pakistani authorities, who they say are being pressured by China to ensure that Uyghur residents don’t speak out about the situation their ethnic group faces in the XUAR.
Authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in internment camps since April 2017, and many Uyghurs in Pakistan have relatives back home who are at risk of detention.
While RFA was unable to immediately contact Pakistani authorities to verify the military official’s claims that nine Uyghurs had recently been deported to China, events that took place during his bid to seek asylum in Europe seem to suggest that Chinese officials had been monitoring him and were aware of his plans.
Speaking to RFA on Tuesday on his arrival to the U.S., Yusup said that while in Doha, “Chinese diplomats visited me … and invited me to talk with them,” but he had refused.
On Wednesday, Yusup noted that he had never been in trouble with the law while living in the XUAR, where he worked for the transportation unit of the seat of Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture’s commerce department.
“I was never in jail when I was in China,” he said.
“I worked in the transportation unit … and then I started my own business. I haven’t quit the unit or collected my retirement.”
Meanwhile, Yusup has said that he fears for the safety of his wife and five-year-old son back in Pakistan, who had tried to accompany him to Doha, but were denied entry because they were traveling on Pakistani passports, and vowed to work to secure their safe passage to the U.S.
In a statement announcing Yusup’s travel to the U.S. on Tuesday, the State Department said it would continue to call on China to “reverse its counterproductive policies that conflate terrorism with peaceful religious and political expression, to immediately release all those arbitrarily detained, and to cease efforts to coerce members of its Muslim minority groups residing abroad to return to China to face an uncertain fate.”
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China this year changed tack and started describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
Claims by China last week that it has already released almost all of those held in the camps were met with skepticism by human rights and Uyghur exile groups, who said that Beijing is seeking to blunt demands for accountability for its treatment of Muslim ethnic groups in the Xinjiang region.
Reported by Gulchehre Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.