China runs hundreds more Muslim detention camps than previously thought, rights group claims

Adam Withnall
A security camera is placed in a renovated section of the Old City in Kashgar, Xinjiang: Reuters

A rights group says it has identified many more sites in northwestern China where minority Muslim Uighur people are suspected to be detained.

Satellite images were analysed to establish the probable locations of more than 460 facilities across Xinjiang province, including prisons, labour camps and what the Chinese government describes as “vocational training centres”.

The coordinates of 182 of these centres, which activists described as “concentration camps”, were also published as part of the research by the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (Etnam), a US-based group advocating for Xinjiang’s independence.

An analyst for Etnam said around 40 per cent of the suspected facilities they found had not previously been reported, and that the research supported far greater estimates for the number of Uighur Muslims detained in China than the oft-cited figure of at least one million.

Randall Schriver, the top US defence official for Asia, told a briefing in May that the Pentagon estimates the number of Muslims detained in China to be “closer to three million citizens”.

Etnam pointed to this estimate in a statement, adding: “We believe the number is much higher when prisons and labour camps are also considered.” The group said it would release coordinates for those in due course.

Etnam’s director of operations, Kyle Olbert, suggested their new calculations may still be conservative. “If anything, we are concerned that there may be more facilities that we have not been able to identify,” he told the AFP news agency.

The region only has a population of about 22 million, of whom more than eight million are Uighurs.

Since 2017, the Muslim population of the region has been subjected to an unprecedented regime of security checkpoints, facial recognition scans, personal visits by state officials and indoctrination in the teachings of the Communist Party and its leader Xi Jinping.

Activists have previously described the measures as “cultural genocide”, saying the distinct Uighur language, belief system and way of life is being wiped out in order to make its citizens conform with the rest of the country.

China says its “training centres” in Xinjiang are voluntary, and that its policies in the region are necessary to combat extremism after a series of separatist terror attacks.

A foreign ministry spokesperson for Beijing, Geng Shuang, criticised Etnam and called its accusations “unfounded”. “All lies will collapse before the facts,” he told reporters.

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