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Bakhtiar (right) and his 11-year-old son protesting in Montreal.

Uyghur-Canadians want Canada to do more for their jailed relatives

Reports say nearly 1 million Chinese-Muslims are being held in Chinese detention centres.

By Jacob Hoytema

Bakhtiar Semseddin, 45, hasn’t heard from his parents in nearly two years. His 11-year-old son, who used to video chat with his grandparents regularly, is also wondering where they are.

Semseddin believes the missing Chinese-Muslim couple are among the many Uyghurs (a minority ethnic group in China) currently being held in detention centres in the Xinjiang region of Western China.

The Semseddins are not alone. Many members of the Uyghur-Canadian community are missing loved ones in China, and together they are calling for more action from the Canadian government to address the issue. In June and July, Semseddin and his son handed out flyers as part of a series of demonstrations by the Uyghur community in Montreal. Uyghurs across the country are also signing petitions and writing to their MPs. They will converge on Parliament Hill on Oct. 1 for a “peaceful demonstration” organized by the Uyghur Youth Group of Canada.

According to Chinese internal figures, an estimated 11 million Uyghurs live in China. 

"There is not a single Uyghur family who has not lost someone” to the camps or gone months without hearing from family.

This past summer, the UN and several human rights organizations expressed outrage over reports that nearly 1 million Uyghur people are being held in “re-education camps” run by the Chinese government. Foreign policy experts read the imprisonment as a move to enforce loyalty to the ruling Communist Party. Human rights advocates say the detentions amount to religious persecution (the Uyghur are predominantly Muslim, though some are Buddhist and Christian).

Chinese officials deny reports of abuse coming from the camps.

Canada is home to a small part of the Uyghur diaspora: the 2016 census found 1,555 people of Uyghur descent. Kayum Masimov, an Uyghur-Canadian community leader living in Montreal, says that they are mostly concentrated around Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. He calls it “the smallest, and probably the newest, diaspora in Canada.”

“In the past, most of our community members used to stay away from politics, they were very shy,” Masimov says. But now, “everyone is mobilized, community-wise.” “There is not a single Uyghur family who has not lost someone” to the camps or gone months without hearing from family, Masimov says.

UN officials and various international politicians, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, have called out the Chinese administration directly — but Canada’s response has been relatively quiet.

In an emailed statement, Global Affairs Canada spokesman Stefano Maron said that Canada “urges the Chinese authorities to immediately release all individuals detained in China for exercising their human rights,” and that they have brought up the matter “publicly and privately” with Chinese officials.

But Masimov says this is not enough. He says he wants the Canadian government to issue a strong public condemnation, and to consider “concrete measures” like imposing sanctions on Chinese Communist Party officials.

Mehmet Tohti, a founding member of the Uyghur Canadian Association, agrees. He says that “the Canadian response is so weak” in comparison to those of other institutions around the world.

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