The Uyghur population in Afghanistan is estimated to be around 2,000 to 3,000. They arrived in Afghanistan in waves, some as early as the 18th century. Hundreds of Uyghurs have fled northwest China's Xinjiang region since the 1950s along ancient pilgrimage and trade routes to escape religious, ethnic, and political persecution under the Chinese government. The Uyghurs settled all over Afghanistan, built communities, raised families, and created lives for themselves as Afghan citizens.
Now, like thousands of other Afghan citizens, they are desperate to leave Afghanistan and escape Taliban control. The Uyghurs, though, face a compounding threat: deportation by the Taliban to China. There are about 12 million Uyghurs in China, and since 2017, they and other Muslim minorities in China have been subjected to a campaign of mass detention, surveillance, forced labor, forced sterilization, torture, and rape. Chinese authorities repeatedly deny allegations of human rights abuses and allege that the detention camps are vocational centers meant to combat extremism and prevent a Uyghur insurgency.
Even though Uyghurs in Afghanistan are Afghan citizens, their state issued identity cards show that they are either Chinese refugees or members of the Uyghur ethnic group. These designations make them incredibly easy to track should the Taliban decide to target and round them up for deportation or any other reason. Unlike other potentially at-risk groups in Afghanistan, the Uyghurs also do not have a state ally or advocate to work on their behalf which puts them at even greater risk for exploitation and deportation under the new Taliban government.
The Afghan Uyghurs’ fear of China is not unfounded. In recent years, the Chinese state has extended its repression of the Uyghurs beyond its borders. China has used diplomacy and aggressive tactics to silence people, insist on extradition, and in some cases, detain Uyghurs abroad and return them to Xinjiang. The Uyghur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group based in Washington D.C., reports that at least 395 Uyghurs have been deported or extradited to China since 1997, though the actual figure may be much higher. The Uyghur Human Rights Project also reports that journalists and human rights organizations have evidence of 40 cases of detentions and extraditions from Afghanistan to China, but only one case has been verified.
Chinese officials have long called for leaders in Afghanistan to crack down on and deport Uyghur militants they claimed were sheltering and training in Afghanistan. Chinese officials proclaim that the Uyghurs belong to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist militant organization that seeks to establish an independent state for Uyghurs. The Chinese government blames the ETIM for a series of terrorist attacks in China since the late 1990s.
In July of 2021, China welcomed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a top Taliban leader, to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. There, the Taliban delegation pledged it would not allow the ETIM or any other potentially harmful group to China’s interests to train or organize on Afghan soil. The Taliban visit worried Uyghurs in Afghanistan, who fear China is colluding with the Islamist group to deport them. The Taliban has some historic connections with Uyghur militants, but the Taliban also has a history of cooperation with China. Political analysts predict that the Taliban are seeking to establish a close relationship with China so that the superpower can provide technology, infrastructure, and a sense of legitimacy to the new Taliban government. Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan has been marred by food and cash shortages, banks are failing, prices are rising, and people are struggling to provide for themselves and their families. The Taliban appear to be looking to China for help avoiding economic collapse, and the Uyghurs may be a central bargaining chip.
Efforts are being made by non-governmental groups to help Uyghurs flee Afghanistan, but they face the same obstacles as others who have tried to assist with Afghani evacuations in recent months. The international community must not forget or ignore the Uyghurs in Afghanistan or in China.