Belgium’s Beijing Embassy Calls Chinese Cops on Uighur Family
Belgian officials say their small country can't risk offending China.
Approximately 1.5 million people, mostly members of the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority, have been held in detention camps in China’s western region of Xinjiang since 2017. The continuing crackdown on Uighur culture, religion, and political expression has resulted in a state of terror throughout the region—and in the destruction of numerous families, with parents, grandparents, and children often separated.
The failure of Muslim countries to speak up for their co-religionists, thanks to economic ties to China, has been much commented on. But while Western countries have been more outspoken on the plight of the Uighur people, they have often been hesitant to act when push comes to shove—even in countries that pride themselves on their advocacy of human rights, such as Belgium.
A tragic recent case highlights this. Ablimit Tursun, a Uighur from Urumqi, Xinjiang, holding Chinese citizenship, was on a business trip to Turkey in 2017 when he was informed that his brother had been detained. His family in Urumqi warned him not to come back, for fear a similar fate could await him. Foreign travel is often used by the Chinese government as an excuse to send people to the camps, as is having relatives overseas.
Tursun fled to Belgium, where he was granted asylum in 2018 and now works full time in a major Belgian company. He immediately began the process of applying for a Belgian family reunification visa for his wife and four children. The visa application included a letter describing the family’s situation as critical, stressing the risk such an application put them in and the need for discretion.
Despite repeated requests by the family to simplify the visa proceedings in order to reduce this risk, the embassy insisted on them making two trips to Beijing. By itself, this put the family in danger: Uighurs traveling outside of Xinjiang are inherently seen as suspicious, monitored by police, and often detained at airports or stations.
On May 26, Tursun’s wife, Wureyetiguli Abula, and their children (who are 5, 10, 12, and 17) secretly flew from Urumqi to Beijing for the second time to complete the visa application and hand in the last documents to the Belgian Embassy. They arrived on a late-night flight to avoid the airport police and checked into a hotel. Since Uighurs are routinely refused service from hotels, and their visits are often reported to the police, the hotel was pre-booked by a friend. Still, less than an hour after their arrival, after they were forced to show ID to register there, the Beijing police knocked at their door and interrogated them. Police officers came again the next evening, intimidating them and encouraging them to return to Urumqi.
Abula feared that if they were returned to Urumqi, they would be blocked from leaving the region again and possibly sent to the camps. Her fear turned into panic when Belgian consular officials informed her the visa processing could take up to three months and advised that she wait in her home in Xinjiang. In fact, the visas were issued a mere two days later, but by then the damage was already done. The family refused to leave the embassy facilities until the visa application was processed.
A long discussion ensued, and security staff ushered the family out into the embassy’s yard, where they lingered. At 2 a.m., the embassy called the Chinese police to the embassy facilities in order to remove the family. This is an extraordinary measure, only allowed in the most exceptional of circumstances. Abula and her children were taken to the local police station for a short interrogation by Xinjiang police, who had traveled to Beijing, and the officers tried to convince them to leave the capital.
As they refused to return to Urumqi voluntarily, they were put under house arrest in the hotel for a day. The next day, the Xinjiang police forcefully entered their room and dragged them into a car. As of June 12, Tursun has not been able to contact his wife and four children for 11 days and has no idea of their whereabouts or health. Friends informed him that the local police had interrogated all his relatives in Turpan and Urumqi, had searched his home, and had taken away the family’s electronic devices. Those relatives may, in turn, be at risk of being sent to the camps.
Abula and her children’s experience was typical of the oppression, discrimination, and absence of freedom experienced by many ordinary Uighurs in China. Abula was not able to travel freely to Beijing, she could not herself buy a ticket for travel out of Xinjiang, and she could not book a hotel room. The mere presence of a middle-aged woman and her children drew the attention of several police officers.
But there are also serious concerns raised by the behavior of the Belgian Embassy, which showed reckless carelessness and a lack of responsibility. The Belgian Embassy was repeatedly informed of the danger it would pose to Abula and her children to have to travel to Beijing several times at different occasions, yet still they insisted. Not only was a request for refuge at the embassy refused, but embassy staff also voluntarily called the police in the middle of the night—effectively sealing the fate of a vulnerable family.
Anybody interested in China knows of the plight of Uighurs. Embassy staff should be more aware of it than most—especially those dealing with a sensitive visa case. For the staff to deliberately endanger a family that they had explicitly forced to take a risky journey to the embassy in the first place was dire incompetence at best, and it hints at deeply misplaced priorities. In a meeting with Tursun (accompanied by Vanessa Frangville, one of the present authors), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belgium cited Abula’s misunderstanding of Belgian administrative procedures and obstinate refusal to leave the embassy to justify cooperation with the Chinese police. They rejected Tursun’s demand to make the family case a priority in their diplomatic agenda, considering that “showing explicit concern would put too much pressure on China” and that it would be wise for “a small country like Belgium” to avoid turning this case into a conflict with China.
This instance recalls the case of a young Uighur man who due to a bureaucratic error was extradited from Germany to China after his asylum case was refused in spring 2018. Dilshat Adil, 22, had lived in Munich for six years. He had finished his schooling there, spoke good German, and had employment. He was arrested by the German police early one morning and forcefully flown to China, where he vanished. When the German authorities realized their mistake, they invited him back, but he has not been heard from since.
As he had been politically active in Germany and reportedly had tattooed on his arm an East Turkestan flag—a symbol of Uighur independence, which can be mean the death penalty in China—the chances of him being safe are minimal. This failure sits uneasily with the German government’s official ideology of promoting human rights. In the German case, this had an aftereffect. Following the disappearance of Adil, Germany and Sweden ordered a full extradition stop of Uighurs to China. But nobody took responsibility of the tragic mistake that had been made, and Germany has not, as far as is known, pressed the Chinese on Adil’s whereabouts.
European countries that claim to prioritize human rights need to do better, both in their support for the victims of human rights abuses in China and in providing support for Uighurs left stranded abroad. The Chinese state frequently threatens and coerces Uighurs overseas, including citizens of other countries. Europe must do more to protect them—and to ensure that the kind of incompetence and cruelty displayed in the Abula and Adil cases do not happen again.
Vanessa Frangville is currently Senior Lecturer and Chair in Chinese Studies at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Belgium.