Australia

Adelaide’s Uighur community fears new Chinese consulate building will lead to monitoring

The day Horigul Yusuf said goodbye to her mother is still etched in her mind.

“Please darling, don’t call us again,” her mother told her during their final phone call in October 2017.

Ms Yusuf is a 61-year-old mother of five and a Uighur woman from China’s Xinjiang province. Adelaide has been her home since 2005.

“My mother said, ‘yesterday the police made us sign an agreement not to take international phone calls or they would take us away to the concentration camps,’” she recalls via a translator.

“That was the last time I heard my mother’s voice. We both cried and said goodbye.”

Adelaide resident Horigul Yusuf can no longer speak to her mother in China.

Peta Doherty/SBS News

The United Nations estimates at least one million people, mostly Muslim Uighurs, have been detained in mass re-education camps in China. The country strongly denies human rights abuses.

Those who have left China can do nothing but wait for news of their loved ones. Ms Yusuf says all her siblings have been taken to camps and her two younger brothers remained detained.

“All I know is they are being locked up under China’s hand,” she says. “We don’t know what happened to their families. They have three children each and we don’t know who is caring for them.”

All I know is they are being locked up under China’s hand. 

– Horigul Yusuf

She says her sister was released after two years in a camp, just days before their father died.

“She used to have long hair almost to her ankles. When they took her they shaved her head.”

Ms Yusuf is one of about 1,500 Uighurs in Adelaide. They are believed to be one of the largest expatriate Uighur communities outside of Turkey. But as well as coping with the impact of missing family members in China, some members of the community say they are now facing a threat much closer to home.

The opening of a new Chinese consulate-general building in the city, only kilometres from where many Uighurs live, has amplified their anxiety.

The new Chinese consulate-general building in Adelaide.

The new Chinese consulate-general building in Adelaide.

SBS News

“Those women are feeling for what their sisters are going through, or their mothers are going through, thinking they are in camps, that’s just heartbreaking,” says Zulfiya Abdulla, a social worker employed at a local community centre.

The consulate has had a presence in Adelaide since 2015 and last week officially opened a new 1,500 square metre premises in the suburb of Joslin, six kilometres from the CBD. The facility, built on a site valued at $10 million, will be staffed by between 10 and 12 consular staff.

The new building marks China’s fifth consulate-general on Australian soil and the fourth largest after Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

The diplomatic footprint is based on reciprocal arrangements – Australia has five consulates-general in China – but some community members are worried about the heavily fortified site. They believe their cultural activities will be monitored by diplomats and reported to the Chinese government.

Zulfiya Abdulla and her daughter at the Uyghur Language School of South Australia.

Zulfiya Abdulla and her daughter at the Uyghur Language School of South Australia.

Peta Doherty/SBS News

Ms Abdulla is also the principal of the Adelaide Uyghur Language School of South Australia. On Sunday mornings the school teaches the Uighur language and culture, which is forbidden in China.

“They will put our relatives in the camps because of what we are doing here,” Ms Abdulla says. “We are not doing anything illegal, we are trying to teach our kids the Uighur language, their culture.”

They will put our relatives in the camps because of what we are doing here.

– Zulfiya Abdulla

A spokesperson for the Chinese consulate-general in Adelaide told SBS News in a statement the presence in the city was “one of the major outcomes from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Australia in 2014”.

“Choosing South Australia as our consulate-general’s base was determined by the ever-closer trade and economic ties, and the increasingly robust cultural and personnel exchanges between China and South Australia.”

Protestors outside the new consulate.

Protestors outside the new consulate.

Peta Doherty/SBS News

The spokesperson also highlighted the “more than 50,000 local Chinese and over 11,000 Chinese international students” in the state. “Since its [original] opening, our consulate-general has been committed to providing consular services to Chinese nationals in South Australia and promoting exchanges and cooperation between China and South Australia.”

Australia also has more diplomatic staff in China than China has in Australia, the spokesperson added.

But East Turkistan Australian Association president Nurmuhammad Majid says harassment of Uighurs in Australia is on the rise.

“Some community members have already raised concerns they are not able to openly support our us.

“Different community members from different parts of Australia have recently reported to us that they have received phone calls from the Chinese consulate, Chinese embassies, or security authorities.”

Mr Majid says 85 members of his own family are currently detained in unknown conditions in his homeland. He says the new consulate-general building in Adelaide is a step in the wrong direction.

“We have tried to bring our community together for over 30 years of hard work, but I fear it may not be such a cohesive community in the future as a result of this consulate-general so close to our neighbourhood.”

“We believe it is a psychological warning: ‘We are already next to you, and we can come inside to you, and we can destroy your community’s coherence.’”

The new building was opened last week.

The new building was opened last week.

The spokesperson for the Chinese consulate-general in Adelaide disputed these claims.

“Some so-called East Turkistan organisations in South Australia, out of their sinister political intentions to split and against China, have spared no efforts to spread lies and wantonly slander and discredit China,” they said.

They condemned recent protests outside the new consulate-general building.

The spokesperson said the new consulate will provide consular services, protection and assistance to all Chinese nationals in South Australia including “Chinese citizens of ethnic Uighur”.

“We are also firmly opposed to any actions by any forces that damage the sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of China,” they added.

[We] will provide consular services, consular protection and assistance to the Chinese nationals in South Australia, including Chinese citizens of ethnic Uighur.

– Consulate-general spokesperson 

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said: “Embassies and diplomatic staff are essential to maintaining official channels of communications between governments”.

“Our embassy and consulates in China play an important role in advancing Australia’s interests. Our expectation is that all foreign missions act in an appropriate manner, consistent with Australian law.”

The Australian federal government last month said it held “grave concerns about the growing number of credible reports of severe human rights abuses against ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang”.

“In particular, there is clear evidence of severe human rights abuses that include restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance, large-scale extra-judicial detentions, as well as forced labour and forced birth control, including sterilisation,” a statement released alongside the New Zeland government said.

But for some in Adelaide’s Uighur community, there is little reassurance that action is being taken amid the shadow of the new consulate-general building.

“The Chinese government will have more power and they will oppress us even here in this second land,” Ms Yusuf says.

“One day I feel they will end up controlling us, just like they do in our homeland.”

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