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The New Arab Staff

Coronavirus outbreak in Xinjiang sparks fears for Uighur Muslims detained in camps

At least one million Muslims are thought to be held in Chinese detention camps [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 July, 2020

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A rise in reported Covid-19 cases in the Muslim-majority Xinjiang province could mean the virus is spreading among Uighur detainees.
Rising numbers of reported Covid-19 cases in Xinjiang have prompted fears and speculation that the highly contagious coronavirus will spread among Uighur Muslims detained in China's vast network of detention camps, The Guardian has reported.

After a five-month period of no confirmed cases in the northwestern province, a majority of Covid-19 cases reported by Beijing on Monday were found to be in Xinjiang. Out of 68 new cases, 57 were reported in the Uighur-majority region.

The outbreak began just two weeks ago in the province's capital, Urumqi, and has since spread to the city of Kashgar, nearly 200 miles away.

Dr Anna Hayes, a senior lecturer at James Cook University in Australia, whose research focuses on the Uighurs, says those numbers mean the spread of the novel coronavirus in China's detention camps is not a question of if, but when.

"I doubt we would ever know," Hayes told The Guardian, referring to Beijing's secrecy around the camps. "But the fact there is community transmission, it's only a matter of time, if it hasn't happened already."

At least one million Muslims, most of them members of the Uighur ethnic minority, are thought to be held in detention camps and centres across Xinjiang. Beijing is accused of subjecting the detainees to torture, indoctrination and forced labour.

They are also accused of holding the wider Muslim population of Xinjiang under a system of repression that allegedly includes forced sterilisation and mass surveillance.

Dr Michael Clarke, an associate professor at the Australian National University's national security college and an expert on the Uighurs, says security guards could spread the virus among detainees.

"If that happens you're looking at fairly grave health risks for those individuals held in the re-education camps," Clarke told The Guardian.

Beijing describes the camps as "re-education centres" designed to steer Muslim minorities away from Islamic extremism and separatism.


Sanitary conditions in the camps are poor, and inmates are held in crowded cells containing as many as 60 people, according to testimonies from former detainees.

"All these factors increase people's vulnerability, and they're under incredible distress and duress which factor into someone's immune system. They don't even have to have a comorbidity. Just the stress they're under increases the chance of a very negative outcome if they get Covid," Hayes said.

Both experts said that it is highly unlikely Beijing would reveal an outbreak in the camps if it occurs.

A state-run programme that places Communist Party officials in the homes of Xinjiang residents could also act as a vector for the spread of Covid-19 in the province, Hayes added.

The "Becoming Family" programme launched in 2017 places Han Chinese men in Uighur homes for around a week every two months. Beijing says the initiative promotes "ethnic unity".

Human Rights Watch has described the programme as a "deeply invasive forced assimilation" initiative. Reports indicate women whose husbands are detained in the camps are forced to take part in the programme, which critics have described as a 24/7 monitoring session, and even sleep in the same bed as male officials.

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