Inauguration of First International Conference on Uyghur Refugees
The first international conference tackling the rights of Uyghur refugees and asylum seekers was inaugurated yesterday [25 April 2016] in Berlin. The two-day event entitled “The Rights of Uyghur Refugees: Past and Present Challenges” is the result of a fruitful collaboration between three of the most active organisations in the field of Uyghur rights: the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) and the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The event brought together high representatives from different organisations, lawyers, scholars, journalists and activists from all over the world, who are jointly working to find successful solutions to the increasing number of deportations and the violations of the international law principle of so-called non-refoulement.
The day started with the charismatic words of Ms Rebiya Kadeer, leader of the World Uyghur Congress, winner of the Rafto price as well as Noble Prize nominee. Ms Kadeer explained how difficult the situation has become for her people under Chinese President Xi Jinping. Thousands of Uyghurs have fled China in search of safer life conditions, going to Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand – where they have often been imprisoned – and Turkey – where Uyghur refugees often face discrimination both by the government, who does not always provide them with financial support, and by the general population, who view them with hostility. Unfortunately, China’s influence on many of these countries has increased with time, leading to problems for the refugees – e.g. after the 1962 China-USSR deal, many refugees were forcibly deported to Siberia. Some refugees receive support from local charity organisations, but this is unfortunately only a small number. According to Ms Kadeer, the diaspora’s advocacy work is fundamental to raise awareness of the situation and discuss possible solutions to it.
Following the words of Ms Kadeer, Mr Marino Busdachin, UNPO General Secretary, stated that the situation of Uyghur refugees and asylum seekers is becoming more and more concerning. At a time when Europe is “collapsing in front of the question of migration”, we must not forget the situation of the Uyghurs: we should increase our efforts to gain support from the European institutions and international organisations. For instance, we have to insist to obtain a resolution on the issue in the European Parliament and possibly also in the US Congress. The most important thing, however, is to counter China’s policies at the UN: in 2005, the ECOSOC condemned China for the forceful repatriations of asylum seekers, but the situation has not improved since. Mr Busdachin stressed that it is time to act against China’s policies and to make sure that the UNHCR enforces the convention on refugees and in particular the principle of non-refoulement.
The floor was then given to Mr Hanno Schedler from the Society for Threatened Peoples, who underlined the importance of hearing the direct testimony of people who suffer these harsh conditions.
Ms Louisa Greve, Vice-President for Asia, Middle East and North Africa and Global Programs at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), explained that, since the creation of the WUC in 2004, the situation in East Turkestan has worsened. However, she identified four points of progress. First, the Uyghur regular presence at the UN has increased and there is an organised advocacy group, which has an important role at the international level. Second, the WUC and the organisations affiliated to it have gained international credibility. Third, Uyghur, Tibetan, Chinese, and international groups are now cooperating to an unprecedented degree. Finally, international media coverage of the Uyghurs' situation has greatly improved in both quantity and quality.
Mr Erkin Alptekin, former President of the World Uyghur Congress and former General Secretary and Chairman of UNPO, focused on the need to convince governments not to deport Uyghur asylum seekers back to China and to find a better strategy in response to this issue.
To conclude the opening remarks, Mr Peter Irwin and Mr Omer Kanat of the WUC, and Mr Henryk Szadziewski, Senior Researcher at the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), presented the results of their on-going research on the situation of Uyghur refugees. According to Mr Szaziewski, since 1999, sixteen countries have deported Uyghurs back to China. This is one more sign that such a gathering is needed, to discuss a strategy to ensure with time that China is no longer able to exert such pressure on its neighbours and that Uyghur asylum seekers are awarded the protection that they deserve, in accordance with international law.