Integration and Mental Health: The Case of the Uyghur Diaspora

Asli Saban
Independent Social Worker and Civil Society Practitioner



Uyghurs are a Muslim ethnic group living primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) (also called as East Turkistan) in the far northwest of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The region’s population is estimated to be nearly 25 million persons. The Uyghur community speak their own language, one similar to Turkish and that has Turkic ethno-cultural practices. As with all ethnic minorities living in Xinjiang, the Uyghur community in China has faced cultural  assimilation, discrimination and persecution. In addition to this, the Communist regime in China has implemented several restrictions inside the country. While the country is the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of goods, independent labor unions are illegal in China. The government only endorses one union, known as the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). All other unions fall under the government’s control. Discussing labor rights and violations, female workers’ specific needs, as well as child labor is restricted in China. Similarly, civil society activities, reporting and documenting violations is limited in China. In consequence, Uyghurs and all other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are not able to provide evidence of human rights violations and cultural assimilation practices in Xinjiang.

Following the Biden Administration’s launch of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, in order to end forced labor practices and to address the plight of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, the international community began covering the atrocities committed against the Uyghur in China in the media – China’s treatment of the community has been deemed a genocide and a crime against humanity. The extent of human rights violations remains very difficult to assess. This is largely due to the Chinese government’s extreme measures to prevent accurate information about the situation in Xinjiang from being documented. Significant diasporic communities of Uyghurs exist in Turkic countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkey. Smaller communities live in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Australia, Russia and Sweden.

Education Camps

In 2017, under the guise of an intensifying campaign against “terrorism”, the government of China commenced a massive escalation of its historical abuses of Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. An objective of the government’s current campaign appears to be to root out Islamic religious practices and beliefs and Turkic Muslim ethno-cultural practices and replace them with secular state-sanctioned views and behaviours. Ultimately, the government aims to forcibly assimilate members of these ethnic groups into a homogenous Chinese nation possessing a unified language, culture, and unwavering loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party in institutions claimed by the Chinese government  to be ‘’training and education centers.’’ Male and female detainees in these centers have reportedly been tortured. Torture methods used during interrogations and as punishment included beatings, electric shocks, stress positions, the unlawful use of restraints (including being locked in a tiger chair), sleep deprivation, being hung from a wall, being subjected to extremely cold temperatures, and solitary confinement and several accounts of rape and other sexual violence. Interrogations usually last an hour or more; punishments were often much longer.

Forced Labor, Forced Movement and Declining Birth Rates

Uyghurs inside and outside the camps are exploited as cheap labor, and forced to manufacture clothing and other products for sale both at home and abroad. Chinese-made face masks and textile products being sold in many countries were produced in factories that relied heavily on Uyghur labor. The child labor problem is also significant within the Uyghur community. Uyghur and children of other ethnic minorities are forced to work in  state-mandated or privately owned cotton fields by the Chinese government. Children are  taken by their families and forced to work in distant districts during their recess. Children have to work at least ten hours in the cotton production, and are required to collect a minimum of 35kg of cotton while working in the cotton fields. Uyghur children also face physical, psychological abuse in their education. During Ramadan, Uyghur children are forced to break fast in schools. In addition to this, Pursuant to new Government policy in 2017, China began building a vast network of massive state-run, highly securitized boarding schools and orphanages to confine Uyghur children, including infants, full time. Hundreds of  thousands of Uyghur children have been forcibly moved to state-run orphanages where they are indoctrinated to renounce their ethnic and religious identities and praise the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These children often lose both parents to internment or forced labor.

The Chinese government is taking severe measures to slash birth rates among Uyghurs and other minorities as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population under the one child birth policy. Although the one child policy ended in 2016, this policy has been implemented within the Uyghur community. The sharp drop in birth-rates in Xinjiang is proportionally the most extreme over the years since 1950. As per testimonials from Uyghur women themselves, many are forced into an abortion at more than six months pregrant. China explicitly admits the purpose of these campaigns is to ensure that Uyghur women are “no longer baby-making machines”.

The Uyghur Diaspora and Mental Health

Today, Uyghur diaspora communities reside in a vast geographic area stretching from Central Asia to Turkey, from Europe to the United States and from Canada to Australia to Middle Eastern Countries. An estimated 1.6 million Uyghurs live outside China according to the World Uyghur Congress. The  Uyghur diaspora has been involved in politics and activism depending on the host country conditions, the international context and their own cohesion. Many Uyghur community members in the diaspora, who are often victims of torture and asylum seekers themselves, continue to suffer from mental health challenges. They are all too aware of traumas and the ongoing plight of their families, friends and relatives back home. Their traumas have also affected their ability to cope abroad. In many countries where they are hosted, Uyghur community members  continue to isolate themselves, and experience depression and anxiety as a result. China continues to track down Uyghurs across the globe, forcing them to return and face persecution.

Concluding Remarks

The Uyghur diaspora remains in dire need of support in host countries – as many countries continue to fall on different ends of this ongoing international humanitarian crisis. Women’s rights organizations, child rights organizations, human rights organizations fall short of including the Uyghur community in their mandates and campaigns. Academic institutions, scholars and practitioners need to continue to bring the plight of the Uyghur diaspora to international discussions. The international media, UN agencies and international human rights organizations must put this persisting crisis on their agenda. In host countries, the Uyghur diaspora require psycho-social support, integration policies as well as safe spaces. The international community must: (1) build an international coalition to help Uyghurs in China; (2) sanction China; (3) counter China at the UN; and (4) support Uyghurs and their affiliated groups directly wherever possible.