Nearly 2,000 ethnic Uyghurs living in exile from their homeland in China marched on Friday in Brussels, political seat of the European Union, to call attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs held by Beijing in political re-education camps in northwest China’s Xinjiang region.
Protesters came from across Europe, Australia, Japan, and Turkey, while other protests were held on Friday in Washington D.C., Canada, Australia, and Japan.
“This is only the beginning,” Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said in a statement after Friday’s march.
“This protest showcases the complete awakening and unity of the Uyghur people,” Isa said.
“We are here to call on the EU, the U.N., the U.S., and the international community to raise the case of the nearly one million Uyghurs extrajudicially detained by the Chinese authorities,” he said.
“We urge the European Union to act on behalf of the Uyghur people, [and] we are here to send a clear message to the Chinese government that no matter how it represses the Uyghur people, it can never break our spirit for freedom, democracy, and human rights.”
Also speaking after the march, former WUC president and respected leader Rebiya Kadeer said that Friday’s protest had been brought together by “the tears of our people.”
“We are going to save our people in the camps,” Kadeer said.
“In the 21st century, there has been no other government but China that has locked up a million people in detention. Therefore, we will continue protests like this in the future,” she said.
Since April 2017, members of the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group suspected of separatist views have been detained in camps throughout Xinjiang, where Uyghurs have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
Central government authorities in China have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in Xinjiang, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret. However, officials in many parts of the region have described in RFA telephone interviews sending large numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and have even described overcrowding in some facilities.
The United States has meanwhile called on China to “end their counterproductive policies” in Xinjiang and has urged Beijing to release the estimated hundreds of Uyghurs arbitrarily detained there.
Speaking at a press briefing on April 20, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that Washington is “increasingly concerned about excessive restrictions on freedom of religion and freedom of beliefs in China,” as well as the country’s “efforts to pressure other governments into forcibly returning Uyghurs to China or to coerce family members.”
Since Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to his post in August 2016, he has initiated unprecedented repressive measures against the Uyghur people and ideological purges against so-called "two-faced" Uyghur officials, a term applied by the government to Uyghurs who do not willingly follow directives and who exhibit signs of "disloyalty."
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 and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.