Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan are deporting large numbers of ethnic minority Uyghurs back to the troubled region of Xinjiang following deadly knife attacks at the Kunming railway station at the beginning of the month, local residents and an exile group said on Wednesday.
"The government put them on buses and drove them to Kunming [Yunnan's capital], and each person was given a subsidy of 1,000 yuan [U.S. $163]," a resident of Yunnan's Shadian township told RFA's Cantonese Service.
"They made them take the train back to their hometowns."
"I heard that Uyghurs from Honghe prefecture and other places were all sent back to Xinjiang as well," said the resident.
The move followed warnings last week from an official in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that China's mostly Muslim Uyghur minority could face a further backlash of discrimination in the wake of the Kunming railway station killings as the authorities tighten security restrictions based on ethnic profiling.
Mutalif Obul, commissioner of Xinjiang's Kashgar prefecture, told state media that Chinese cities had stepped up measures targeting Uyghurs on the basis of their ethnicity following the March 1 stabbings that left 33 dead in what authorities have labeled a "terror attack" carried out by Uyghur separatists.
An employee who answered the phone at a guesthouse in Honghe's Shiping county said that other people from outside Yunnan were being subjected to police interviews since the deadly attacks.
"It's not just people from Xinjiang," the employee said. "If you are from another province, the police will basically come and visit you to check you out."
"If an outsider checks into a guesthouse, the police will come to the guesthouse to carry out checks [on that person]," he said.
But he didn't give examples of any non-Uyghur outsiders who had been sent home.
Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper reported on Wednesday that nearly 900 Uyghurs have been subjected to internal deportation since the Kunming attacks.
Uyghurs in Shadian had more economic opportunities and were able to practice Islam with fewer restrictions than in tightly controlled Xinjiang, the paper said, quoting local sources.
Ilshat Hassan, vice-president of the Uyghur American Association, said similar moves were afoot to "repatriate" Uyghurs from other major Chinese cities.
Authorities have taken similar steps in Beijing, Henan, and Shaanxi, according to sources who spoke to the U.S.-based group.
"Other places are already doing this: Beijing, Henan, and Shaanxi, as well as Yao'an," Hassan said. "They are all sending Uyghurs back."
"Previously, they just wouldn't allow them to stay in guesthouses; now they are openly demanding that they go back [to Xinjiang]," he said.
Rights activists said the tendency towards enforced ethnic segregation is a dangerous one.
"For the state to be removing Uyghurs from mainland China contravenes the idea that people can move freely around the country," Henryk Szadziewski, senior researcher with the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told RFA's Mandarin Service.
"It promotes a form of segregation. Already, we see in Urumqi itself ... all across the region, people almost selectively segregate themselves," he said.
He said that while the attacks in Kunming should be utterly condemned, further investigation is needed into the factors behind the attacks, which Beijing has labeled an act of terrorism by overseas-sponsored Uyghur separatists who had been planning to wage "jihad."
"It's critical we get to the bottom of what happened ... who these people were, what they were doing there, what their motivations were," Szadziewski said.
'Fanning the flames'
Meanwhile, U.S.-based rights activist Liu Qing, former head of Human Rights in China (HRIC), said the move to send Uyghurs away from Yunnan is a "serious violation" of their rights.
"There is no evidence suggesting that these people are connected to the terror attack," Liu said. "A rational society should not discriminate against these innocent people."
"The Uyghurs who are sent back to Xinjiang may share their outrage with their compatriots, and that will fan the flames of hatred, which is an ingredient of terrorism," he said.
Szadziewski called on Beijing to involve Uyghurs more, not less, in their own future.
"To be demonizing Uyghurs in contemporary China is a serious issue, because if you push people to the margins, they will have few choices, and they will go looking for other alternatives," he said.
"Bring them in. Make them decision-makers. Make them participate in their own destiny," he said.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Xi Wang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.