Uyghur Child Internment: A broken system resulting in broken families

Thousands of Uyghur children in Xinjiang have been orphaned since 2014, not because their parents have died or abandoned them but because the Chinese government has forcibly detained them. Uyghur children who have had both of their parents taken to “re-education” camps have become wards of the state, being sent to highly secure orphanages and receiving a state-lead Chinese education. These children being sent to care facilities around Xinjiang regardless of if they have other family members to care for them or not, is just another step towards the cultural genocide of the Uyghur people in China.

In recent years there has been a spike of construction across Xinjiang. Along with dozens of new “re-education” camps being built, numerous orphanages or “child welfare guidance centres” began construction as well. In 2017, the government allocated more than 22.7 million pounds, 200 million Chinese yuan, towards the construction or expansion of these orphanages. Eighteen of these facilities were constructed in Kashgar in the last year alone, with similar numbers in neighbouring cities throughout the region. While the Chinese government’s internment camps are being used to forcibly assimilate older Uyghurs, their new orphanages are wiping out children’s Uyghur identity completely.

A Chinese education

After the children are separated from their families, they are cut off entirely from their culture, religion and language. One by one, these children are being taught that their parents behaviours and beliefs are radical and dangerous, that in order to be patriotic young men and women they need to embrace their Chinese identity and essentially forgo all things Uyghur.

In school, Uyghur children are taught Mandarin Chinese and if they are caught speaking in the Uyghur dialect, they are promptly reprimanded for it. From kindergarten onwards, children are being taught nationalistic propaganda through slogans and songs, are taught to “be grateful for education and love and repay the motherland”, as well as to avoid the behaviours that the government has deemed to be signs of religious extremism. Extreme behaviour can be anything from growing a beard to not smoking or drinking for religious reasons, only using halal products to saying “salaam alaikum”.

The children who are fortunate enough to have their parents at home, rather than locked up in one of China’s concentration camps, still face the full force of government conditioning. Schools have begun to make it mandatory for Uyghur and other minority children to stay at their boarding facilities during the week, regardless of protests from their parents and despite the fact that Han Chinese children still have the option to continue living at home. The schools teach children to respect their teachers more than their mothers or fathers and encourage children to report back if they see their parents engaging in any Islamic activities. When the children do come home now, they criticize their parents’ actions and tell them that what they are doing is bad. Parents have begun to worry that because of their zealous conditioning, their own children could end up getting them locked away. The Chinese government has not only interfered with the Uyghur’s rights but they’re now interfering with family life as well.

Moulding impressionable minds

Tahir Imin hasn’t spoken to his daughter in six months. The last thing she said to him over the phone was, “you are a bad person. The Chinese police are good people.” Hearing your 7-year-old daughter speak these words to you could just about break your heart, but Tahir holds onto his hope that one day he will be reunited with his daughter and have his family back.

Tahir is an Uyghur living in America, where he came to study at graduate school. With their passports confiscated by the Chinese government, his wife and daughter were unable to join him but they kept in contact regularly through phone calls. Slowly, friends and relatives stopped contacting him and deleted him from social media in fear that the out of country calls would land them in detention, and now even his wife and daughter have stopped speaking with him.

Tahir hates being separated from his young daughter but he knows that if he were to go back to China now, he would be immediately detained and put into a “re-education” camp. He prays each day that his family will stay safe in Xinjiang and that his little girl won’t lose her identity. He fears that his daughter is being taught to hate her Islamic roots, and soon won’t acknowledge that she is Uyghur at all.

Tahir told The Atlantic, “I taught her that we are Uighur and we have a very special culture. Our food, language, clothes, history—everything is different. I taught her to be proud of that. Now she is being taught the Chinese culture … so maybe she lost a lot of things, or forgot everything I taught her. But she has a sense in her heart that she is different: She is Uighur. I believe that.”

Many Uyghur families are going through the same pain and longing that Tahir is feeling through the loss of contact with his daughter. Their children are being taken away from them and turned against their family values and culture. They have no way of getting in contact with their little ones and can only hope that they are safe wherever they are. With the Chinese government moulding these young minds, and teaching them to put the motherland before their families, they are effectively erasing the Uyghur identity.

Children are being made into orphans, families are being destroyed and an entire race of people are being publicly persecuted with seemingly no repercussions. The Chinese government speaks of what is happening in Xinjiang as though they are doing something positive, something that will bring “stability, development and harmony” to their country. But in reality, their oppressive policies and islamophobic actions are tearing a rift through innocent families and stands as a major infringement on the human rights of every Uyghur man, woman and child.

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