x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Australia urged to accept Uighurs

The Chinese Muslims were cleared of being terrorists by the United States, but officials have struggled to find a country willing to take them.

Nadira Yusufu, left, and Dilyar Memtimin, Uighur refugees in Sydney, want the Australian authorities to accept six fellow Uighurs from Palau.
Nadira Yusufu, left, and Dilyar Memtimin, Uighur refugees in Sydney, want the Australian authorities to accept six fellow Uighurs from Palau.

SYDNEY // Australia is being urged to accept a group of six Uighur men who have been temporarily resettled on the Pacific island country of Palau after being released from years of incarceration at Guantanamo Bay. The Chinese Muslims were cleared of being terrorists by the United States, but officials have struggled to find a country willing to take them.

China suspects the former detainees of involvement in a separatist rebellion in its western Xinjiang province and wanted them repatriated, a move resisted by the United States because of concerns the men would be imprisoned or worse if they were sent home. The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority concentrated in the west of China who often complain about state-sanctioned discrimination. Uighur separatists wish to create a homeland called East Turkistan.

Captured by bounty hunters in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, several Uighurs were taken to the US military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. In 2008, investigators publicly acknowledged that none of them were enemy combatants, but for a year the authorities tried without success to find them a new home, with 100 countries, including Australia, refusing Washington's request to resettle the Uighurs.

Unwanted and effectively stateless, six detainees were finally offered a lifeline late last year by the tiny republic of Palau, a former US trust territory. It has a population of about 20,000 and sits 800km east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean, a tropical archipelago better known for its scuba diving than as a haven for international outcasts and geopolitics. Palau joined Albania and Bermuda in offering Uighur prisoners a bolt-hole after their release from Guantanamo, and the islands' president, Johnson Toribiong, said he was proud to make the "humanitarian gesture".

His hospitality, however, is not open-ended and he has urged Australia to grant the men permanent sanctuary because of its large Uighur community, a call endorsed by activists living in Sydney. "Palau is a really small island with not one Uighur living there. For the six Uighur guys, they have no English. They have lost already eight years of their life and taking them to that small island has made it hard for them. Can you imagine?" said Nadira Yusufu of the East Turkistan Australia Association, who arrived as a refugee from China five years ago.

"We have a big community here. We can help them to find a job, we can help them to start learning English, everything. Of course, Palau is much better than Guantanamo Bay, but still it is really hard for them," she said. Ms Yusufu, 36, said the former detainees "were caught at the wrong place at the wrong time" and though in Pakistan or Afghanistan were not fighting with insurgents against US-backed forces but simply escaping Chinese repression.

"Those six guys really need help from the Australian government. I know Australia is a really big business partner with China, but human rights are human rights," Ms Yusufu said. A fellow refugee, Dilyar Memtimin, left China after experiencing problems with the authorities and has settled in Australia with his twin brother, while other siblings fled to the United States. He wants Canberra to show compassion to the Uighurs in Palau.

"I hope the Rudd government will speak out and won't be kept silent. It shouldn't be afraid of Chinese pressure in this case," Mr Memtimin asserted. The 22-year-old student has ambitions to become a lawyer to help others who are facing persecution build new lives in countries like Australia. "I learned what a human is when I arrived at Sydney Airport. It is terrible in our homeland because of the oppression and discrimination. At every level the Uighur people face the unjust policies of the government," he said on a blustery day in an inner city park in Sydney.

"The men in Palau, yes, I think they can have a good life here," he added. However, their chances of being allowed into Australia appear slim. The prime minister, Kevin Rudd, will not want to antagonise a key trading partner as China's booming demand for minerals continues to underwrite Australia's rapid economic recovery. Australia's department of foreign affairs said in a statement that the government would consider requests on a "case-by-case basis" and in accordance with strict national security and immigration rules.

Paul Power, chief executive officer of the Refugee Council of Australia, doubted that the Uighurs would be granted asylum by officials in Canberra or qualify as skilled migrants. "Australia has one of the most highly regulated immigration processes in the world with a strong focus on economic interests. I would suspect that is going to be very difficult for Uighur people to migrate from Palau to Australia," he explained.

In tranquil Palau, Mr Toribiong, the president, said he believes the invisible yet persuasive hand of Chinese diplomacy is behind Australia's reluctance to accept the Uighurs. "It is strange. It [Australia] is a big country and I'd assumed they were pressured by China to take a position that they did," Mr Toribiong said. @Email:pmercer@thenational.ae