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“Not Being a Burden to the State.” How Ethnic Kazakhs From China Who Came Back to Historical Homeland Live?

For six months of 2019, over a thousand families of ethnic Kazakhs have moved back from China to their historical homeland.  


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Since birth Oralkhan Aben was living in the county of Durbuljin of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China. According to her, it had been rather quiet there for a very long time, but since 2013 the religious citizens have problems with performing salah in mosques.

Once we entered the mosque, they recorded our ID data in front of the gates. Later on, we learned they were preparing something terrible then. They blackmailed workers and retired people saying they would not receive their salaries and pensions if they keep attending the mosque. They prohibited the young people to enter the mosque. That was how the policy of ban started.

Photo courtesy of Oralkhan Aben

In 2017, everyone whose ID cards had been registered in the mosque was moved to political re-education camps. In addition to religion, the authorities took care of education. The place we lived in closed down the Uygur school long before. They then started to close down Kazakh school, and as far as I know they put Kazakh language teachers to the camp. Those who were not put into the camp were hired as security to Chinese schools.

Kazakh children started to attend Chinese schools, where they were prohibited to speak Kazakh, and were ordered to speak only Chinese. We worried about the future of our children. The question that concerned us very much was what would be with the succeeding generations if they destroy our religion, our language.

Back in August 2016, her husband and she decided to move to the historical homeland. Here she and her three children received citizenship, and her husband was refused due to some issues with his passport. Nevertheless, all the family stayed in Kazakhstan.

Northward

At first, Beijing denied the existence of political camps, and then called them “centres of professional education” to prevent extremism and radicalism. Late in December last year, the authorities of China invited 12 foreign diplomats,

By results of the visit, advisor to the ambassador of Kazakhstan in PRC, Manarbek Kabaziev, shared his impression with the Chinese international TV channel, CCTV. He noted that the Chinese government takes care of its citizens by giving them an opportunity to master new professions.

According to the Kazakh ministry of labour and social protection, since 1991 136,492 people returned from China to the country. And in six months of 2019, 1,552 people from China got back to the historical homeland and received a status of oralman (ethnic Kazakhs moving to Kazakhstan – editor’s note).

According to Atazhurt Yeriktileri organisation, which is actively solving the issues of ethnic Kazakhs in PRC, Kazakhstan does not have to provide housing, jobs or benefits to former citizens of China. Therefore, ethnic Kazakhs don’t get any of these officially. However, they can receive pension if they didn’t receive in back in China. However, a lot of documents need to be provided instead.

Back in August, ex-president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke at the party session and called the Kazakhs who returned to their historical homeland to end the “welfare” mentality.

“Now they declare some thirty-year-old slogans “Pay to me as I have many children,” “Pay to me as my salary is low.”  What were you thinking about? These are your own problems. You didn’t ask the state for advice back then. The state tackles its own tasks and pays. No, pay me more,” Nazarbayev said (as cited by Zakon.kz).

However, the state allocates funds for those oralmans who settle down in northern regions of the country, where residents leave, birth rate decreases and net migration rate is always negative. According to Atazhurt Yeriktileri, after oralmans settle down in the north, they get a single payment for housing rent in their first year, 86 thousand tenge (223 dollars) per every family member.

For example, if the family consists of five members, the single aid amount will be 430 thousand tenge (a little more than 1.1 thousand dollars).

Nevertheless, the majority of returnees have settled down in Almaty region – 29,589 families (73,675 people), East Kazakhstan region – 12,864 families (40,347 people) and in the capital – 3,672 families (6,130 people).

Oralkhan Aben with his family lives now in Almaty region in the village of Karabulak. They moved closer to her husband’s relatives.

“We didn’t receive [any aid], and we never asked for it. The only thing is that we receive a small disability benefit for our youngest child since this February. We purchased a land plot at our own expense and built a house, but our documents are not ready and we cannot move there. So, we live with my husband’s relatives so far,” she said.

The woman found an occasional work as a dishwasher in the village and earns a living alone as her husband cannot work due to health problems and their eldest daughter is a university student.

“Now we have some domestic problems. But we are not being a burden to the state as we try to earn ourselves,” Oralkhan added.

They ordered us to get divorced

Now she is trying to have her mother move back from China to Kazakhstan. According to her, she is confined to her apartment in China.

“She is sick and there’s no one to take care of her. Mom wants to come here to us, but they don’t let her out and don’t give her documents back to her.  One of the reasons is to keep her silent about what she saw in the camp and went through. We sent her the official invitation. Border officers should return her passport to her when they see the invitation and let her enter Kazakhstan. However, it doesn’t happen so,” Aben said.

The woman hopes her family would reunite. Before that, she had been waiting for almost two years for her husband to return from China – in September 2017 he went to his brother’s funeral to Xinjiang and disappeared.

Courtesy of Oralkhan Aben with her spouse and children

Later on, she learned that a passport was seized from her husband when he was crossing the border when entering China.

“They ordered him to get divorced. In July 2018, they allowed him to contact me for this purpose. He said he was getting divorced without explaining the reasons. I was not ready for the divorce, so I refused to. I felt something was wrong,” the woman recalled.

In September 2018, her husband was arrested. According to Oralkhan Aben, he was questioned even at 2-3 am and asked why he moved his family abroad. She filed complaints to the Kazakh parliament, foreign ministry and even president. She asked them to help her get her husband back and reunite their family.

After numerous letters and complaints, her husband was finally released. He got back to Kazakhstan February this year.

“His health got worse – because of constant beatings and tortures, he cannot hear, his kidneys are damaged, liver and heart have enlarged, stomach got infected. He was threatened not to tell anything to his family about what happened to him. He was threatened so much,” said the wife of the prisoner in the Xinjiang camp.

They threatened him not to tell anything to his family about what happened to him.

In April 2018, the law enforcement bodies of XUAR detained and sent the elderly mother of Oralkhan Aben to the camp.

“She is 70 years old and despite her age, she was detained in the camp for traveling to Kazakhstan and for reading the namaz. However, they provided no official documents of her sending for political re-education. I found out about [detention] 16 days later. I didn’t know anything about her situation. Other people told me some scarce information. In July of that year, she underwent surgery on her gallbladder. And 15 days after the treatment, she was returned to the camp,” Aben said.

A few months after the arrest of his mother, the younger brother of Oralkhan hanged himself because he couldn’t suffer the oppression.

“On the day of Yerbolat’s death, my mother was allowed to say goodbye to him and was released for only six hours! She was not even allowed to say goodbye to her son in a normal way. Then she was again locked up in the camp. Her condition after the surgery and constant interrogations and conditions of detention got worse. In September, she was put to the hospital, and could not walk. But soon she was sent back to the camp,” Aben said.

In December 2018, she was told her mother was released and confined to home arrest.

The pain of separated families

This March 4, Kazakh foreign minister Beibut Atamkulov announced that the number of ethnic Kazakhs in the camps fell by 80 per cent. And the terms of obtaining documents for leaving China to Kazakhstan (mainly for family reunion) were simplified.

“In 2018, about 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs received visas to go to their homeland. This year, 33 citizens of Kazakhstan who have dual citizenship were detained in China,” Atamkulov said to the parliament.

Photo courtesy of Aina Shormanbaeva

According to Aina Shormanbaeva, head of the International Legal Initiative Public Fund, many victims were released due to complaints from relatives to the Kazakh foreign ministry, international organisations, as well as reports of world media about detentions without the right of defence and without communication with the outside world.

“Of course, in their responses, the foreign ministry said it doesn’t have the right to interfere in the domestic affairs of China, but according to the principles of humanity and family unity, they nevertheless send diplomatic notes to the Chinese party, negotiate and a few months later the issue gets resolved. Some prisoners are confined to house arrest, and then released and allowed to go to Kazakhstan. Although we have not yet heard the official clear position about these camps, there’s an invisible work done,” Shormanbaeva said.

According to the International Legal Initiative, since 2017, 162 citizens of Kazakhstan have turned to them for help. 15 people have already been freed from the camps and got back to their families.

“However, they reported their return. There are people who return quietly. Not all applicants said that their relatives were taken to the camp. Some just asked for help with documents and for legal assistance,”Aina said.

According to Human Rights Watch, those people who have relatives abroad, especially in one of 26 “sensitive countries”, including Kazakhstan, Turkey and Indonesia, most frequently become the target of attacks from Xinjiang authorities. Also, according to Shormanbaeva, practicing Muslims are at risk:

They detained even imams who performed their activities with the permission of the state. Although these people have never been against the state and have not committed any crimes. But because they served as mullahs, they were sentenced, according to some sources, to 10-15 years in prison. Some mullahs were beaten to death in prison.

The camp itself, according to the description of people who have been imprisoned, resembles an ordinary penal facility. One cell could contain Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Uighurs and Dungans.

“From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., those who were arbitrarily detained were taught to write in Chinese. As far as I know, even literate people, such as teachers, are taught this. But they are taught not the well-known formal language, but the language of propaganda. They learn to write so-called letters of regret about their former way of life and thoughts and confess their adherence to communist ideals,” Aina Shormanbaeva summarised sadly.

They are not taught the well-known formal language, but the language of propaganda.

Even after release from the camp, leaving the country seemed to be a big problem.

“Even if they managed to leave, they were forced to sign many documents where they promised not to tell anything about what happened in the camp. At the same time, they leave 1-2 family members behind for pawns in China. Therefore, those who go to Kazakhstan have to go back to Xinjiang in fear for their relatives who were held hostage,” Shormanbaeva explained.

Those who have nothing to lose travel to Kazakhstan and stay here. However, many are afraid to speak openly about their sufferings.

More than a month ago, Oralkhan Aben received a response from the foreign ministry of Kazakhstan that measures would be taken to get her mother back. Also, the Kazakhstani woman wrote a letter to the Human Rights Department of the UN regional office. She hopes her mother will be able to reunite with her family soon.


This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»