Pakistan threatens to send Uyghur refugee families back to China

3 Min
Pakistan threatens to send Uyghur refugee families back to China

Niyaz Ghopur, a Uyghur refugee in Pakistan, got a scare when police and intelligence officers showed up at his home about two weeks ago to tell him that he and his family would be repatriated to China if they didn’t renew their U.N.-issued refugee cards.

The Pakistani officers threatened to detain all eight members of his family, saying they didn’t have legal documents allowing them to remain in the country.

This was alarming for Ghopur, 67, whose family had fled China in 2016, fearing for their lives. 

Soon after landing in Pakistan, they had received cards from the U.N. refugee agency, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, declaring that the family should not be sent back to China, where authorities had been cracking down on the mostly Muslim Uyghur population in the far-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Ghopur told the Pakistani officers that UNHCR had inexplicably refused to renew their refugee cards after they expired in October. He assured them he would get them renewed as quickly as possible, and the officers left, Ghopur said in recounting the incident to Radio Free Asia.

“We had gone there [to the UNHCR office] three or four times lately, and the staff said that they stopped issuing cards and would call us when they began to reissue them,” he said. “But they have not called us. They treated us well two years ago. They used to inquire about our situation, but no one cares about us anymore.”

RFA learned that five or six other Uyghur refugee families in Pakistan had the same experience, where visiting police and intelligence officers told them they would be repatriated to China unless UNHCR renewed their cards.

China’s sway

It isn’t clear why Pakistani police threatened these Uyghur families – or why local UNHCR offices stopped renewing their refugee cards. 

Pakistan is a predominantly Muslim country, so presumably it would be sympathetic to fellow Muslim Uyghurs. But the government is an ally of China and has voiced support for Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea, as well as at the UN Human Rights Council. 

Pakistani officials have come under pressure from Beijing because of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a massive project under the so-called Belt and Road Initiative to improve Pakistan’s infrastructure for better trade with China and to further integrate the countries of the region.

When RFA contacted UNHCR’s head office in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday to inquire about the incidents, Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, head of the agency’s global communications, said she was unaware of the issue but would respond after contacting the Pakistan office.

The call apparently had an effect.

Within a couple days, the UN agency’s offices in Pakistan renewed the refugee cards for the Uyghur families in question, and Pakistan’s judiciary said they would not be deported.

“I want to reassure you that our team is reaching out to the concerned people to follow up on the renewal of their documents, an exercise which is currently underway for registered refugees,” Aoife McDonnell, senior external relations officer at the UNHCR in Pakistan, wrote Wednesday in an email to RFA.

According to Uyghur human rights activists in Pakistan, the U.N.refugee agency office there contacted eligible Uyghur refugees and informed them that they could renew their refugee cards on Thursday.

“It is good news,” said Omar Uyghur, founder of the Omar Uyghur Trust in Pakistan, which has provided assistance to Uyghur refugees. “There will be no danger to Uyghurs here now because they can stay here legally.”

UN aware of China’s actions

Memet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project in Canada, said there was no legitimate reason for UNHCR to refuse to renew the Uyghur refugees’ documents.

He pointed out that the United Nations was well aware of China’s repression of the Uyghurs. An August 2022 report by the U.N. human rights office found China’s actions against Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”  

Pakistan today is home to about 3,000 Uyghurs, who first began seeking asylum in the country when Chinese troops occupied Xinjiang in 1949. The Chinese government allowed some Uyghurs with relatives in Pakistan to immigrate to the country in 1963 and 1974.

In the 1980s, under China’s opening-up policy, Pakistan became a hub for Uyghur Muslims making a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Some Uyghurs settled there and set up businesses, others got an education, and some Uyghur women married Pakistani men.

But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, China and Pakistan strengthened their cooperation, and Pakistan repatriated numerous Uyghurs to China. 

RFA could not reach Meliha Shahid, the press attaché at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington for comment.

—–A RFA report