Concerns grow as four Uyghurs face risks of being deported back to China by Saudi Arabia

William Yang
6 min readApr 12, 2022

Last week, several human rights organizations shared urgent news about the arrest and possible deportation of four Uyghurs back to China by the Saudi government. According to them, the concerning trend shows that “there is no safe haven for Uyghurs” in the world, and that Muslim countries are facilitating China’s transnational repression of Uyghurs.

The last time that Abduweli Ayup received information from Abula Buheliqiumu was on April 9, as she sent him two videos and several voice messages, seeking his help. “The messages that she sent me were heartbreaking as she was crying for help in the messages,” he said.

“In the morning, I received another message, and it said she had already driven to Riyadh and the police told her that someone from the Chinese embassy will come and they will discuss deportation,” he added.

According to statements released by Amnesty International and Safeguard Defenders on April 4, Abula and her 13-year-old daughter were arrested by Saudi police in Mecca on March 31.

The mother and daughter were told that they would be deported back to China with two other Uyghur men, 52-year-old Uyghur religious scholar Aimidoula Waili and Abula’s ex-husband, Nuermeiti Ruze. The two men were arrested in Mecca in November 2020 and they have been in detention ever since.

In fact, prior to his arrest in 2020, Waili already told Middle East Eye that he feared for his life as the Chinese consulate in Saudi Arabia asked the Saudi government to deport him back to China. According to Amnesty International, after Waili and Ruze were arrested, Abula kept in touch with her ex-husband until March 20.

On that day, Ruze recounted that he told Saudi authorities that he and Waili would rather die in Saudi Arabia than be sent back to China. A few days later, Abula and her 13-year-old daughter were also arrested. Ayup said he tried to convince Abula to leave Saudi Arabia prior to her arrest, saying he worried that she could be in danger.

However, Abula said if she went back to Turkey, no one can save money for Waili and Ruze as well as take care of them. “I told her that she would be in danger and I warned her that when she was arrested, there was not much I could do,” he said. “I could only tell journalists about what happened.”

Laura Harth, the campaign director for Safeguard Defenders, said so far they only know that Abula and her daughter have been detained and they think the two might have been brought to Riyadh and would be at a detention center by now. “There has been no formal arrest, no formal accusations, or no formal expulsion notice,” she told DW.

Deutsche Welle tried to call the Saudi embassy in Beijing several times, but no one answered the phone before the deadline.

Are Muslim countries helping China to persecute Uyghurs?

Over the last few years, several Muslim countries have been accused of arresting Uyghurs in their countries and deporting them back to China. In December 2021, a court in Morocco decided to extradite Uyghur activist Yidiresi Aishan back to China, but experts from the United Nations later issued a statement to call on the Moroccan government to halt the extradition of Aishan. Prior to that, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have both been accused of deporting Uyghurs back to China.

On April 1, UN human rights experts issued a joint statement, calling on the Saudi authorities to allow Waili and Ruze to get in touch with their family members while revealing their fates and whereabouts. Over the last weekend, Uyghur communities in several countries staged protests in front of Saudi diplomatic missions, demanding the Saudi government halt the extradition of the four Uyghurs back to China.

Zumretay Arkin, the spokesperson of the World Uyghur Congress, says the trend of Uyghurs being arrested and facing possible deportation back to China in Muslim countries shows that there is no safe haven for Uyghurs even if they have proper documentation to stay in specific places.

“It’s mostly been Muslim countries that have been facilitating this translational repression at the request and from the pressure of the Chinese government,” she said. “It shows a grave and disturbing pattern that these Muslim majority countries are aiding China to repress the Uyghurs.”

“We are also trying to find lawyers for the mother and the daughter, but it’s a bit difficult to predict what’s going to happen. We can only hope that the public pressure will help,” she added.

Harth from Safeguard Defenders adds that there are some diplomatic efforts that could at least halt Saudi Arabia. She also hopes that public attention to the case can prevent Saudi authorities from taking any swift and irreversible decisions.

Criticism of UN human rights chief grows

While overseas Uyghurs are facing risks for their freedom, skepticism about the UN human rights chief’s stance on China’s persecution of the Uyghurs also begin to grow.

In March, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet announced that she plans to visit China in May and Xinjiang is part of her itinerary. Prior to that, Bachelet had tried to visit Xinjiang for years, but the Chinese government never approved her request.

However, Uyghur rights organizations remain suspicious about Bachelet’s stance on China’s persecution of the Uyghurs. Zumretay Arkin from the World Uyghur Congress says even though the organization has engaged with Bachelet’s office on several occasions, Bachelet herself hasn’t really engaged with Uyghur groups.

“It’s really important for Michelle Bachelet to speak up about the Uyghurs because she has mandates to fulfill and within her mandate, she has some power,” Arkin said. “Power to investigate atrocities and crimes which is the case for Uyghurs.”

“There were also some concerns about her very sudden announcement because what are the parameters of the visit? This has been a huge lack of transparency. We don’t think she will have independent access to all of the places. We wonder if she will even be allowed to visit the camps. Also, given the recent COVID19 outbreaks, how will she be able to meet with civil society, activists, or individuals given the COVID19 regulations in place,” she added.

As for how to prevent other overseas Uyghurs from experiencing similar risks of being deported back to China, Arkin and Harth both highlight some ways that their organizations use to reduce the risks that Uyghurs might face while traveling to or traveling through specific countries.

“On Safeguard Defenders’ website, we publish this kind of travel advisory for people to look at and know what countries have extradition treaties and what countries have been doing more deportation and extradition to China,” said Harth.

Arkin says the World Uyghur Congress has been trying to raise awareness within the Uyghur community, telling Uyghurs that certain countries have deep ties with China and warning them that they won’t be safe in those countries, especially if they carry Chinese passports.

“I think there is common knowledge from people that they are at risk if they are using a Chinese passport and they are in these specific countries,” she said. “Over the last few years, there has been this common knowledge about these risks, but people are sometimes left without any better choices.”

Harth says she knows that some Uyghurs try to escape because they are afraid of the risks, but she thinks that escaping actually increases the risks they might face. “I think it’s very important for the Uyghur community to come together and inform each other, and talk to human rights organizations and not take the risk of traveling somewhere in the hope of traveling to Muslim or Central Asian countries,” she said.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s website.

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William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.