Agencies contributed to this report
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China is running hundreds of detention centres in northwest Xinjiang targeting the province's Uighur Muslim minority, a much greater number than was previously estimated, according to an Australian think tank.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) said it had identified more than 380 "suspected detention facilities" in the region, where China is believed to have held more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking residents.
The number of facilities is around 40 percent greater than previous estimates, the research said, and has been growing despite China's claims that many Uighurs have been released.
Using satellite imagery, eyewitness accounts, media reports and official construction tender documents, the institute said "at least 61 detention sites have seen new construction and expansion work between July 2019 and July 2020".
This information, including the coordinates for each individual camp, has been made public in an online database called the Xinjiang Data Project.
Fourteen more facilities were under construction in 2020 and around 70 have had fencing or perimeter walls removed, indicating their use has changed or they have been closed.
"The evidence in this database shows that despite Chinese officials' claims about detainees graduating from the camps, significant investment in the construction of new detention facilities has continued throughout 2019 and 2020," said ASPI researcher Nathan Ruser in comments quoted by The Guardian.
Beijing on Thursday again denied the existence of detention sites. The government says they are vocational training centres used to counter extremism.
Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called ASPI "the vanguard of anti-China forces whose academic credibility is seriously questionable".
US lawmakers recently voted to ban imports from Xinjiang, citing the alleged use of systematic forced labour.
Read more: US House votes to ban Xinjiang imports over forced Uighur labour
The ASPI said in its report that the "camps are also often co-located with factory complexes, which can suggest the nature of a facility and highlight the direct pipeline between arbitrary detention in Xinjiang and forced labour".
The United States already bans products made through slavery but the act would put a blanket ban on products from Xinjiang, saying that forced labour is inextricably linked to the region's economy.
Beijing recently published a white paper defending its policies in Xinjiang, where it says training programmes, work schemes and better education mean life has improved for the Muslim minority.
It claims to have given "training sessions" to an average of 1.29 million workers each year between 2014 and 2019.
Following the publication of the ASPI report, the Chinese government-controlled nationalist tabloid Global Times cited "sources" as saying contributors Clive Hamilton and Alex Joske were banned from entering China.
Wang did not confirm if the two academics had been banned on Thursday, but said the matter was "totally within the scope of China's sovereignty".
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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.