Nearly a dozen Uyghurs in the Netherlands have been refused political asylum three or more times and are facing intense pressure from Dutch authorities to return to China, where they are likely to face persecution, according to a Uyghur at a refugee camp.
They are among more than 50 Uyghurs from China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region who had applied for asylum in the Netherlands.
“The 50 or so Uyghurs have all had their applications for asylum rejected at least once. About 12 of them have been rejected three times or more … They have not been issued identification documents or given social benefits. It makes me sick to see this,” said Abdushukur Sherip, a 30-year-old from Xinjiang’s Gulja city who has been living for three years in a refugee camp in Amersfoortsestraatweg, southeast of Amsterdam.
Sherip, whose application for asylum has been rejected twice, said that life has been hard in the camp, but that many of his fellow Uyghurs have been there for a longer period—some for five or six years.
He felt the Dutch authorities were unaware of the gravity of the crisis faced by many Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people native to Xinjiang who resent Chinese rule and controls on their religion, culture and language. In addition, recent economic development has unfairly benefited China's majority Han who had migrated to the region over the past decades.
“I think this government and the lawyers don’t understand what the situation is like in East Turkestan (Xinjiang). If I say OK to the Chinese government [policies], I can live very well there. But because there is no freedom there, I am here,” said Sherip, whose second application for asylum was rejected on Sept. 22.
“The court doesn’t understand what the situation is like there and I want the court and the West to understand,” he said.
Officials, he said, did not believe his claim that he had traveled to the country to escape religious persecution, adding that they doubted the likelihood he could face torture in jail on his return to China.
“The court says my story is confusing. I don’t understand why they have rejected my case. I didn’t come here to make money—I am seeking religious freedom and human rights,” Sherip told RFA in an interview last week.
The Dutch Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Relations did not immediately respond to RFA’s queries on the Uyghur asylum claims.
'Open' and 'closed'
A Netherlands-based Uyghur translator, who assists Uyghurs seeking asylum in the country, said their refugee camps are divided into two types—an open camp where there are no restrictions on movement and a closed camp.
“The people who have been told to live in the closed camp are being prepped to return to China. I can’t say who lives in the closed camp due to security reasons. But more than ten Uyghurs live in the closed camp and can’t go anywhere,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Life in the closed camp is not easy. They just give you food, but no freedom. In the open camp, every week the government provides you with money and shelter. Every week you get 55 euros (U.S. $74).”
The Uyghur translator said he expected Dutch authorities would allow Sherip to remain in the country.
“Most Uyghurs can get asylum and live in Netherlands. But some Uyghurs, because they are so nervous and have confusing stories, are unable to get a ruling in their favor,” he said.
“I believe that as a democratic country, being different than the other countries in Southeast Asia that repatriated Uyghur refugees, the Netherlands will allow him to continue to live in the asylum camp. But they are trying to get him to agree to return to China of his own free will. They are really pressuring him—everyday,” the translator said.
Sherip lives in an “open” camp with his Uyghur wife, who he met at the camp and who is also seeking asylum, and their three-month-old daughter. He is an active member of the Uyghur community in the Netherlands, which numbers around 1,000.
Sherip, who decided to apply for asylum in the Netherlands after his travels to Kyrgyzstan and Turkey on business, said he had refused to give in to officials pressing him daily to return to Xinjiang on his own accord.
“They want me to agree to go back to China, but I won’t agree to it because I know what will happen to me if I go back,” he said.
Sherip said he was likely wanted by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang as he had participated in Uyghur protests which led to the destruction of property at the Chinese embassy in The Hague following deadly ethnic riots in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi in July 2009.
“I don’t care if [the Chinese authorities] kill me, but I am afraid they will take me to jail and torture me. Anything can happen in a Chinese jail. The police there are very cruel.”
Chinese authorities, wary of instability and the threat to the Communist Party's grip on power, often link Uyghurs in Xinjiang to violent separatist groups, including the Al-Qaeda terror network. Last month, Xinjiang courts sentenced four Uyghurs to death for violence in two Silk Road cities in July which left 32 people dead.
In December 2005, a Uyghur seeking political asylum in Denmark named Burhan Zunun committed suicide after officials pushed him to return to China, highlighting the fear Uyghur refugees face of mistreatment at the hands of Chinese authorities.
Many Uyghurs had been deported in recent years from countries with strong trade and diplomatic ties to China, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Laos.
“This world doesn’t understand us. We still don’t know what happened to most of the Uyghurs who were returned to China,” Sherip said.
“Maybe they are missing, in jail, or even dead. No one is asking what happened to these people and the Chinese government won’t say anything either.”
“I trust that the Netherlands, as a democratic country which respects human rights, will understand the plight of the Uyghurs … If they send us back, we don’t know what will happen to us.”
World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilshat Raxit said that since the Urumqi violence in 2009, most Uyghurs who have sought political asylum in European countries were granted it.
“The World Uyghur Congress tries to assist Uyghur refugees attain political asylum in Europe by providing those who reach out to us with letters of recommendation,” he said.
“Not all Uyghurs contact us, so we don’t have information about all of their cases. Unfortunately, some of them face difficult cases and must spend extended stays in refugee camps.”
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Mihray Abdilim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.