One of the largest internment camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s (XUAR) Kashgar city—as well as camps in the city’s airport and a neighboring county—remains in operation, according to local officials, despite claims by authorities that all of the region’s detention centers have been shuttered.
Authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of camps since April 2017.
Beginning in October 2018, Beijing acknowledged the existence of the camps, but described them as voluntary “vocational centers,” despite reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service which has found that detainees are mostly held against their will in poor conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
In a July 2019 press conference, XUAR Chairman Shohret Zakir told reporters that more than 90 percent of internees from so-called “vocational training centers” had graduated from their “studies” and been placed into jobs. In later statements, the Chinese authorities claimed that all “centers” had been closed.
Last week in Paris, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated the claim that all those sent to the camps have been released and placed in employment.
“The rights of all trainees in the education and training program, though their minds have been encroached by terrorism and extremism, have been fully guaranteed,” he said during a conference at the French Institute of International Relations. “Now all of them have graduated, there is no one in the education and training center now. They all have found jobs.”
However, RFA recently spoke with two Uyghur cadres from Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) city—a trading post city of 500,000—and Kashgar prefecture’s Makit (Maigaiti) county who directly contradicted the claims, saying camps in the area are still operational and that thousands of people are being held involuntarily inside them.
During one phone call, a Uyghur cadre from Kashgar city’s Doletbagh village said that the “Yanbulaq School”—one of the largest internment camps in the city—remains active and that he had recently traveled there and met with detainees from his jurisdiction via a video screen inside of the facility.
“Yes, I’ve been to meet with them—they’re in Yanbulaq,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The building [we went to] was three stories. We entered through a gate … There were a lot of buildings, 10 or 20.”
The cadre said he was not allowed into the detention area, so he was unable to watch what detainees do there, although he said that residents from his village “were wearing uniforms” and are made to learn Mandarin Chinese.
He estimated that the camp held thousands of “students,” although he was unable to provide specific figures.
The cadre also confirmed that a camp located near the Kashgar airport, referred to colloquially as the “Airport Camp,” also remains in operation.
He said that while he hasn’t been to the airport facility, it is smaller than the Yanbulaq School, adding that one resident of Doletbagh had been taken there after spending around five months at Yanbulaq.
Earlier investigations by RFA have found that the Kashgar airport camp grounds include a factory and workshops where internees are forced to work in addition to studying in a compulsory Mandarin program.
A map shows Kashgar city and neighboring Makit county in northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). RFA
RFA also spoke with a Uyghur cadre from a village in neighboring Makit county’s Tumental township who said that her township’s camp is also still in operation, housing “as many as 2,000” detainees “receiving education” in “up to 20” buildings of between “five and six stories” each.
“It’s still there … We call it the Tumental Center,” she said. “It’s in the same place as the township government … they share a wall.”
The cadre, who also declined to be named, citing fear of reprisal, said there are no workshops or factories at the site, which was originally constructed in 2015 and later expanded.
She said at least one person from her township that she had investigated had been held at the Tumental Center, but “people from outside Tumental have been brought there.”
“I also stayed there [for work] for around two months at one point,” the cadre added.
She provided the telephone number of a Uyghur man who works in a supervisory role at the camp, but repeated calls by RFA went unanswered.
When asked whether the continued operation of the Tumental Center indicates that internment camps are still being used by authorities in the XUAR, the cadre said, “Yes.”
Uyghurs living abroad, some of whom still report dozens of missing relatives, refuse to believe government claims about the closure of camps and release of internees. Activists in the diaspora recently launched a campaign based on the hashtag #StillNoInfo to draw attention to the fact that they had seen no proof to suggest that their family members had been released from camp.
Ilshat Hassan, a Washington-based political analyst and former president of the Uyghur American Association (UAA) exile group, called China’s claims about the closure of the camp system “outright lies,” arguing that while the number of camps may have decreased recently, the actual square footage of the camps that still exist has grown.
Moreover, he said in an interview with RFA, the management of the camps has grown more systematic and standardized.
“It’s been over three years since the Chinese government opened the camps in East Turkestan,” he said, using the name preferred by Uyghurs for their homeland.
“They opened in 2017. But China has not released the Uyghurs and Kazakhs it has been holding in these camps. Rather, they have used these past two to three years to build even more systematized, perfected, and secretive camps of many kinds.”
Reports of the continued operations of the camps in Kashgar come a week after Buzzfeed said it had used satellite imagery to identify 268 structures built in the XUAR since 2017 “bearing the hallmarks of fortified detention compounds,” noting that there was “at least one in nearly every county” in the region.
Amid international condemnation and U.S. sanctions, experts believe that China has begun sentencing Uyghurs held in internment camps to prison, providing legal cover to the detentions.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson Written in English by Joshua Lipes.