China keeps German officials out of Xinjiang
Dec 6, 2018
Photo: AP/Ng Han Guan
Keegan Elmer

China has rejected Germany's request to travel to Xinjiang, where an increasing body of evidence suggests Muslim minorities are being held in vast numbers.

German Human Rights Commissioner Bärbel Kofler said on Tuesday that the travel request to the far western region was made as part of preparations for an annual meeting on human rights between German and Chinese officials this week in Tibet.

“I am shocked by reports of the treatment of the Turkic Uygur minority, more than one million of whom are estimated to be imprisoned in internment camps in Xinjiang,” Kofler said, adding that she would continue to seek permission to travel to Xinjiang.

About 10 million Muslim Uygurs live in Xinjiang, China. Photo: AP/Andy Wong

A United Nations panel cited reports in August that up to one million Muslim minorities, mostly Uygurs, are being held at internment facilities.

On Wednesday Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s top UN human rights official, said that her office was seeking access to the region to verify “worrying reports” of re-education camps targeting Muslim minorities, according to Reuters.

The Chinese side hasn't made any public comment on the travel requests from Germany and the UN.

China had denied the existence of internment camps in Xinjiang. But it has in recent months changed its narrative drastically, legalizing these facilities in October and terming them vocational training centers.


But despite its claims that the facilities were meant to deter terrorism, China has increasingly come under international pressure for its treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

Critics say these camps are in violation of human rights, and last week Uygur woman Mihrigul Tursun, a former detainee, told the United States Congress that she was tortured multiple times while detained in one of the centers, where a number of detainees died.

Last month, in a rare move, 15 ambassadors of Western countries wrote a letter to request a meeting with the top official in Xinjiang. That request was also rejected.

Uygur woman Mihrigul Tursun recounts her experience in a detention camp in Xinjiang to reporters in Washington. Photo: AP/Maria Danilova

Germany has been a vocal critic of China’s human rights record, including the internment camps in Xinjiang. The country is also hosting Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who had been under house arrest for eight years before she left for Germany in July.

Kofler, Germany’s human rights commissioner, said she would raise the country’s concerns about religious freedom, civil society, and other human rights issues in China during the German-Chinese Human Rights Dialogue in Lhasa on Thursday and Friday.

After the meetings in the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Kofler will return to Beijing to meet German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is in the capital on a state visit.

Last year’s human rights dialogue, a two-day event which began in 1999, was canceled by China, with neither China nor Germany saying why it was called off.

Keegan is a contributor to Inkstone. He is a reporter at the South China Morning Post covering China in world affairs.