Who are the Uighurs and why has Canada declared China’s treatment of them a genocide?

Credit: AP
  • By Digital Presenter and Producer Amani Ibrahimi

Canada has become the second country in the world to declare the treatment of an estimated one million Uighurs in China as a genocide.

A parliamentary vote in Canada’s House of Commons on Monday saw opposition parties unite in an overwhelming decision to recognise China’s actions in the Xinjiang region as a genocide against Muslim Uighurs.

The Canadian parliament is accusing China of imprisoning Uighurs in camps where they’re forced to denounce their religion and are physically abused. 

The non-biding motion passed 266 to 0 but despite so many votes, parliament’s decision was not supported by everyone.

Canadian Prime minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet did not attend the vote. 

Marc Garneau, Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister who did attend, abstained 'on behalf of the government'. 

In a statement, Mr Garneau said he believes there needs to be a credible international investigation on the allegations of genocide.

“We remain deeply disturbed by horrific reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang, including the use of arbitrary detention, political re-education, forced labor, torture and forced sterilisation,” Mr Garneau said.

So far, Mr Trudeau has tried to keep a balance between Canada and China’s relationship. Therefore, a move like this could potentially raise diplomatic tensions between the two nations. 

On the other hand, opposition Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole has said he wants Canada to work with the US to put an end to the camps in China.

He’s calling on the government to back the ‘genocide’ statement passed in parliament.

Who are the Uighurs and what is happening to them?

An estimated 12 million Uighurs, who are mostly Muslim, live in north-western China in the Xinjiang province. They are the largest Muslim minority in the country.

They’re Turkic-speaking and have their own Uighur language. Their language is similar to Turkish and many of them regard their culture to be similar too.

The Uighur people are believed to have lived in China for hundreds of years.

  • ITV News Correspondent Emma Murphy heard from a Uighur woman who had fled to China with her three-year-old daughter, on what life was like in Xinjiang province

At least one million Uighurs have been detained by the Chinese government and placed in ‘re-education’ camps.

They have been subject to ideological discipline, forced to reject their religion and to change their language. Many have been separated from their families and children.

Initially, the government’s target against Uighurs happened after a group was accused of a series of terrorist attacks.

China’s suspicions about the Uighurs could also be because they harbour such a separate culture. 

Their distinctive language and religion segregates them from the rest of the country.

Some Uighurs refuse to accept that Xinjiang is part of China as they believe their people lived in the area before the Chinese Han and Tang dynasties took over.

ITV News Correspondent Emma Murphy met with a Uighur man who said he was detained for 16 months and tortured

Many have described being tied in chains and beaten for hours while being interrogated in order to reject their religion and worship communism instead - a similar story amongst many who have been in the camps.

Although many are still being held there, others have managed to flee China, telling disturbing tales of forced abortions and removal of wombs.

Some believe the camps are part of a tactic to lessen the Uighur population whose birth rates had fallen by 60% in comparison to the rest of China where it had only fallen by 4% in September 2020.

At least 50,000 Uighurs have fled to Turkey.

Uighur women grab a police officer as they protest in China in 2009. Credit: AP

What has China’s reaction been?

China opposed Canada’s allegations on Tuesday - saying that Canada has broken international laws by intervening in their country.

A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said that this "disregards facts and common sense and purposely smears China, which severely violates international laws and principles and interferes in China’s domestic affairs".

It’s no surprise that such allegations against China are being compared to "ethnical cleansing" which the Chinese government has always denied.

However, China does acknowledge the camps but it says it is not for the reason others are accusing it of.

It admits it has detained Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities but as part of a programme to educate not eradicate. 

In November 2019, confidential documents were leaked to international journalists contradicting the Chinese government’s claims.

It laid out the government’s deliberate strategy to lock up minorities in the hopes to rewire their thoughts and change the language they spoke.

It included information on a scoring system which would grade Uighurs on how well they spoke the language Mandarin and if they memorised ideology.

A woman from the Uighur community living in Turkey takes part in a protest. Credit: AP

How has the world reacted?

The United States was the first country to declare that China had committed genocide against Uighur Muslims. The declaration was made not long after Donald Trump left office.

In January, the US announced it was halting imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang as it believed some products were being produced with forced labour.

The topic has been discussed in the UK but has not led in the same path as US or Canada.

Earlier this month, ministers blocked a vote on giving the UK courts a role in determining whether the Uighur situation is a genocide. 

Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab is expected to challenge China on reports of abuse in Xinjiang at the next United Nations meeting.

In September last year, 130 MPs and peers in the UK signed a letter which compared the camps in Xinjiang to Nazi Germany.

They accused the Chinese government of holding a programme of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and addressed the cross-party letter to China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming.