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As the global outcry over China’s crackdown on the Uyghurs grows, members of the same ethnic minority in Japan are calling for help out of desperation to discover what has happened to their families back home.

At a symposium in Tokyo last month, 10 ethnic Uyghurs spoke out about their dilemma and the dangers they still face outside China.

Deeply concerned about their families and their future, they are seeking international support to cast yet more light on Beijing’s alleged persecution of the Uyghurs.

Afumetto Retepu, a 41-year-old Uyghur from Tokyo who has lived in Japan since 2002, told the audience he has lost contact with 12 family members since July 2017, when they vanished and ended up in what China calls “free vocational centers” designed to “save” Muslim minorities from the lure of religious extremism.

“Since that time I can’t reach them. I have no idea what has happened to them,” he said at the symposium, which was aimed at raising awareness of the issue.

“But even if they went there on their own, as China says, would they willingly cut their connections with all their relatives without telling anyone where they went? It’s absurd. China tells the world the ‘training centers’ help them live a happy life but what they do is tear our families apart,” Retepu said.

Last year, a United Nations human rights committee published a report saying it had received credible reports that 1 million ethnic Uyghurs in China were being held in so-called re-education centers in Xinjiang.

The U.N. panel alleged the interned Uyghurs and other Muslims were being treated as “enemies of the state” solely on the basis of their ethno-religious identity, and that the camps were serving as indoctrination centers.

Beijing has rejected the allegations, claiming that only religious extremists and separatists are being taken to the “vocational education centers.”

China has also argued that Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists who plot attacks and try to raise tensions between Uyghurs and China’s ethnic Han majority.

Uyghur diaspora in Japan

According to the nonprofit group Japan Uyghur Association, which has around 100 members, there are nearly 3,000 Uyghurs living in Japan. But this figure is only a rough estimate. Neither the Justice Ministry nor the Foreign Ministry have exact data on the size of the Uyghur population here.

“Many Uyghurs hold Chinese passports and they are listed as Chinese nationals,” a Foreign Ministry official in charge of Uyghur issues said by phone.

In addition, it is not known how many Uyghurs have naturalized or are seeking asylum, a Justice Ministry official said.

According to Retepu, who has become a Japanese citizen and is on the board of the Japan Uyghur Association, many Uyghurs from Xinjiang came to Japan using the eased passport regulations introduced by Beijing around 2011 to encourage more Chinese to study and travel overseas.

Naoko Mizutani, a professor at Meiji University’s Research Institute for Contemporary China and an expert in Uyghur affairs, said at the symposium that many Uighurs, including the children of elite bureaucrats, left Xinjiang due to escalating violence against Muslims, which she says particularly intensified between 2016 and 2018.

Women perform a traditional dance in the main bazaar of Urumqi, in China's Xinjiang autonomous region, as a security guard stands by in November 2018. | BLOOMBERG
Women perform a traditional dance in the main bazaar of Urumqi, in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region, as a security guard stands by in November 2018. | BLOOMBERG

Nine of the 10 Uyghurs who spoke at the symposium alleged that family members were or are being detained at re-education camps where they were all forced to denounce Islam.

Mizutani, who conducted a survey of 84 Uyghur students in Japan, said she found that nearly all of them have been unable to locate family members, and that many believe their kin were sent off to the camps.

Ken Saijo, 43, another ethnic Uyghur with Japanese citizenship, said his parents were set to come to Japan in 2017 but the Chinese police confiscated their passports right before departure.

The Japanese government doesn’t have any specific migration policies that guarantee the protection of Uyghurs in Japan, other than asylum.

“As a general rule, applicants can be given asylum through the screening process if the political situation in their home country isn’t safe,” a Justice Ministry official said.

A 45-year-old Uyghur who has been living in Japan since 2005 alleged that one of his relatives was detained by Chinese authorities upon return from a three-month trip to Japan and was sent to a Xinjiang camp.

The relative was later released in drastically poor health after losing his eyesight and nearly half his weight as well, said the man, who requested anonymity.

Calls for greater support

In July, 22 nations including Japan, the only one from Asia, called on China to halt the alleged suppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang at a regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. But China rebuked the criticism and claimed its campaign was saving Uyghurs from radical influences.

Last year, Germany and Sweden said they would refrain from deporting Uyghurs. Sweden also decided to grant political asylum to all Uyghurs seeking refuge.

“There’s no easy solution to the problems the Uyghurs are faced with but at least we can protect the lives of those who are in Japan,” said Meiji University’s Mizutani.

The Justice Ministry would not confirm whether any Uyghurs were deported to China in recent years.

The Japan Uyghur Association and Mizutani are working together on a petition drive calling on the Japanese government to do something to help Uyghurs in Japan.

“For many people our situation may be hard to comprehend, but our plight could reach more people if more took an interest in our culture and our situation,” said Mahmut Ilham, a Uyghur rights activist in Japan. “We can make a difference if we work together.”

Contributing writer Hinano Kobayashi assisted with this report.

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