Families fear that Australia is being too cautious on issue because of China’s economic might.
Melbourne, Australia – Yusuf Hussein is an Australian citizen of Uighur ethnicity who lives in the small city of Adelaide.
He and his five children used to speak to his elderly parents every week, but since 2017 he has not been able to contact them.
“Suddenly, [they] disappeared and none of them answered my phone,” Hussein told Al Jazeera.
“They didn’t message me at all. I tried to send a message. None of them responded.”
A recent report from Human Rights Watch accuses the Chinese government of committing “crimes against humanity” against the mostly Muslim Uighur in its western region of Xinjiang.
Crimes including imprisonment, forced labour, sexual violence, torture, murder and enforced disappearance.
Hussein believed his father, who is 85, mother and siblings have been transferred to what he describes as a “concentration camp” – large-scale detention centres that the United Nations has said may hold an estimated one million Uighur people.
The Chinese government refers to such centres as “education” camps that offer “vocational skills training“.
The president of the Uighur Association of Victoria, Alim Osman, said at a recent parliamentary inquiry there were about 5,000 Uighurs living in Australia, with about 1,500 of them thought to be in Adelaide, a city of 1.3 million people on the south coast.
Yusuf Hussein’s family members in Xinjiang province, whom he says he has not been able to contact since 2017 [Courtesy of Yusuf Hussein] Many Uighur living in Australia have similar stories of loved ones being detained or disappearing altogether.
‘No one can give us answers’
Marhaba Yakub Salay, 33, like Hussein, is also an Australian citizen of Uighur ethnicity living in Adelaide, after moving to the country in 2011.
Her elder sister Mayila Yakufu is also currently imprisoned in Xinjiang for the second time.
When Yakufu was released after she was first interned for 10 months in 2018, Salay spoke with her by phone for about 10 minutes.
During the conversation, Yakufu would not say where she had been.
“I was trying to ask her – where did you go in the last 10 months?” Salay told Al Jazeera.
“She didn’t say anything, but she said, ‘Don’t worry about us – the Chinese Communist Party [is] looking after us very well.’”
Salay believed that her sister was calling not from home, but from another location under government supervision.
That was the last time they spoke and in May 2019, Yakufu was arrested again.
According to an email from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) – which Al Jazeera has seen – Salay’s sister was arrested “on suspicion of financing terrorist activities”.
The charge, Salay explained, was founded on money transferred by her sister to their parents, who also live in Adelaide.
This money, Salay told Al Jazeera, was not for terrorism, but to buy a home.
“We got all the evidence here,” Salay said. “It’s black and white evidence – but the Chinese government still accuses my sister of supporting terrorism overseas.”
Salay believed that such charges have been invented by the Chinese government for the purposes of detaining her Uighur sister, with the DFAT email stating her sister was likely to be held “in a traditional prison, rather than a re-education camp”.
Almas Nizanidin also had a loved one, a Uighur Australian citizen, “disappear”.
In 2017, his wife Buzainafu Abudourexiti, who is now 29, was sentenced to seven years in prison on what he says is “no charge” and with “no evidence”.
Nizanidin had planned to return to China to help his wife emigrate to Australia, where he has been living since 2009, but she was interned before he could do so, and he has no knowledge of her whereabouts.
“[The Chinese authorities] won’t tell me anything. They tell us ‘this is an order from the higher-ups,’” he told Al Jazeera.
“I’ve been everywhere [in China] and no one can give me the answers.”
Mayila Yakufu, 44, was detained on charges of funding terrorism, after sending money to her parents who live in Adelaide, Australia, to buy a house [Courtesy of Marhaba Yakub Salay] Nizanidin said his mother – a 55-year-old high school maths teacher – was also arrested and sent to a detention centre for more than two years.
She was eventually released last year, but Nizanidin said that while he has since spoken with his mother on the phone, she would not say anything about her experience.
“She is shocked, she is scared. She doesn’t want to say anything,” he said.
“She was telling me, ‘Be quiet, stay quiet. Just do your own business – don’t say anything against the Chinese government.’”
Hussein, Salay and Nizanidin all told Al Jazeera that the Australian federal government has provided support for investigations into what has happened to their loved ones.
In a separate case, Australia was eventually able to bring the wife of another Uighur man, Sadam Abdusalam, back home in December 2020. He had campaigned tirelessly for his family to be reunited.
However, Nizanidin said that the Australian government is treading cautiously on the issue of Uighur disappearances and detention due to its close economic trade relationship with China.
It is a sentiment shared by Salay.
“I know money talks sometimes. But money has to be clean, doesn’t it?” she told Al Jazeera.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 168 billion Australian dollars (US$128.6bn) in exports in 2019-20, equivalent to one-third of all Australia’s global trade.
In recent times, this trade relationship has become increasingly frayed exacerbated by Australia’s call for an investigation into the origins of coronavirus in China and allegations of forced labour among Chinese companies in Xinjiang has brought Australia’s trading agreements under further scrutiny.
In late 2020, a report emerged indicating that the government of Victoria – Australia’s second-most populous state – had dealings with a Chinese rail company linked with forced Uighur labour.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report, Uyghurs For Sale, identified 82 foreign and Chinese companies “potentially directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uighur workers outside Xinjiang through abusive labour transfer programs as recently as 2019”.
Companies identified in the report include CRRC, which ASPI said is part of a two billion Australian dollar (US$1.5bn) contract to build 65 trains for the Victorian government.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, a spokesperson said the Victorian government was “deeply concerned by allegations of forced labour associated” with companies linked to Victoria’s train project.
The statement added that the government had received “repeated assurances from the manufacturers that there is no evidence of forced labour in their supply chains”.
Almas Nizanidin with his wife Buzainafu Abudourexiti, who has been detained since 2017. He has had no contact with her since [Courtesy of Almas Nizanidin] Despite calls from the opposition to provide evidence of such assurances, none has yet been offered.
Instead, Opposition Transport Minister David Davis has taken the dramatic step to procure such evidence via a civil court process.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Davis acknowledged that it was “notoriously difficult to look down a supply chain” for evidence of forced labour.
However, he also said that “if the minister has received an assurance [that Uighur forced labour was not being used] we want to see what that assurance is” and queried why the government was “fighting bitterly” to withhold such evidence.
With the governments of the European Union, United Kingdom, United States and Canada all putting recent pressure on China for its treatment of the Uighur minority, Hussein, Salay and Nizanidin all believe the Australian government should follow suit.
“The Australian government can recognise this is a genocide and pressure the Chinese government to release my sister,” said Salay.
For the three of them, the issue is simple and human: three Australian citizens remain out of contact with their loved ones.
“I have to speak to my wife,” said Nizanidin. “I just want to reunite with my family.”
The pain of this separation was further exacerbated during the recent Eid.
“Today is our Eid day and we used to call them and talk to [our family],” Hussein told Al Jazeera.
“But we are crying. Even my kids – our eldest is 11 years old – she also asks, ‘Where is my grandpa? Where is my grandma?’”