‘They are concentration camps’: What life is really like inside China’s orphanages for Uighur children

Built like prisons with 60 orphans per room, China’s ‘protection centres’ are anything but. Brian McGleenon speaks to escapees and former camp employees about grim conditions on the inside

Tuesday 08 September 2020 13:09
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Uighur children watch as police officers pass their home in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang
Uighur children watch as police officers pass their home in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang

I hope they have already died because if they are alive it is worse torture for them.” Tahir Imin’s voice breaks with grief for the children in his family, who have been detained for years at unknown locations across China’s vast Xinjiang autonomous region. The academic’s brother Adil was sentenced to 10 years in prison, his step-mother to 15 and three of his cousins received up to 10 in “re-education” camps as a consequence for his activism against the mass detention of the country’s Uighur Muslims. Now in political asylum in the United States, he tells me: “My family are all in camps or in prison, if they are still alive.”

When Chen Quanguo became Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang in 2016 he immediately began implementing the same social engineering policies he used to suppress Tibet, which rapidly transformed the region into a police state under his mantra of “rounding up whoever needs to be round up”. Uighur families were torn apart in the name of “coerced isolated detoxification” at so-called re-education centres. Once incarcerated they would only be released when ideologically “healthy” and rehabilitated from “the disease” of Islam. As the detained adults multiplied, so too did their orphaned children, thousands of whom have been left alone in the homes where their parents were arrested. Government data mined by German anthropologist Adrian Zenz revealed that in one rural area in particular, over 400 children whose parents were “double detainees”, meaning both had been interned, have been abandoned.

Tahir Imin, founder of the Uighur Times Agency, based in Washington DC, says many of these abandoned children have died from starvation or hypothermia, especially during the unforgiving Xinjiang winter. No Uighur adults are left that could look after them, he says, and many Han Chinese neighbours are wary about coming to the aid of “the children of terrorists”. After the detentions escalated, many of the orphans drifted onto the streets to beg for food. So, at the Ninth Party Congress of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Chen Quanguo ordered a new directive: “to concentrate all orphans into institutions by 2020”.

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