The Muslim families torn apart by Chinese 're-education camps'

  • China has been accused of incarcerating hundreds of thousands of muslims without reason. ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward went to meet some former inmates who have fled to Kazakhstan

There were around 25 of us gathered in a small office room in central Almaty. There were men and women, young and old, and a small group of children and babies.

The adults were all clutching photographs, and each of them was desperate to show us the face of their loved one and tell us what happened to them.

For the next two hours we heard stories of wives who had gone to China to visit their families and never returned, of sons who had been called in for questioning by the police in Xinjiang, and not been heard of since; three members of one family had been taken into detention without any explanation at all.

The most heartbreaking moment was when nine-year-old Mulik told us about his dad. Through his tears and sobs he begged the Chinese government to let him come home. He hasn’t seen him in two years.

There are hundreds of thousands of stories like these. We heard just a fraction of them but still the Ministry of Foreign affairs in Beijing insisted these accounts are untrue.

For the first time this month the Chinese Government has admitted the existence of facilities in Xinjiang province where an estimated 1,000,000 Muslims (a figure they dispute) are being held. But these facilities, which the rest of the world calls political prisons, have been given the label "vocational training centres". They are, to quote Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, “effective, precautious measures to combat terrorism and eliminate extremism in accordance with law".

One of the 're-education camps' in China's Xinjiang province.

In recent weeks China has used state media to try and silence the growing international condemnation of its re-education camps. The Global Times newspaper and Xinhua News Agency have produced interviews with officials from the regional government in Xinjiang and with some of those being held in the vocational training centres.

During a 15-minute documentary on Chinese state TV we were told the lives of people in the centre are being transformed through education, and they thanked the Communist Party for steering them onto a better path.

The accounts given by media controlled by the state do not match the testimonies I heard in Kazakhstan or those which have been documented by human rights organisations and the United Nations. There are widespread reports of torture and overcrowding in camps which satellite images have shown are continuing to expand.

The ex-detainee we spoke to described a 12-hour interrogation during which his hands and legs were chained and his body was encased in metal armour. He said he was in such agony he just agreed to anything the guards said.

During his four-month detention he was forced to renounce his religion and pledge allegiance to the Communist Party. Every day he had to recite socialist songs and slogans and study the 19th Party Congress. He believes the Chinese government wants to create a homogenous nation, with one language, one religion. Anything different is deemed a threat. And Muslims, I was told, are treated like terrorists.