Sweden about to deport a Uyghur family to Xinjiang

A Uyghur family of four have been denied asylum to Sweden, and is now about to be deported to Xinjiang. The ruling is due to a lack of knowledge about the situation in China among the staff behind the decision. The family will be forced to live on the street from next week – or visit the Chinese embassy in Stockholm.

When the neighbourhood that Abdikir* was living in was about to be torn down in early 2015, its residents were unhappy with the conditions and the compensation on offer. Many of the older people in this northern Xinjiang town didn’t speak mandarin Chinese well, so Abdikir took the case to local authorities, and then to authorities in the provincial capital of Urumqi, on the behalf of the entire neighbourhood.

This was not appreciated. Suddenly a day in March, the police arrived to Abdikir’s home and took him away to a police station. There, he was beaten up and tortured and threatened into making a confession and signing a statement, saying that he had nothing whatsoever against the fact that his neighbourhood was going to be demolished.

Abdikir is not sure of the reason why he was then taken to a hospital. Perhaps the police wanted to stitch him up before appearing in public with the statement? What he is sure of though is that he got help to escape from the hospital, and was taken to a car where his family was waiting. Together with his wife and his four year old daughter, the car drove Abdikir to the airport where his departure to Europe had already been arranged.

In May 2015, Abdikir and his family started the process of seeking asylum in Sweden, the Scandinavian country that have been accepting more refugees per capita than any other European nation during the last handful of years. Indeed, then Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt in a famous speech during the summer of 2014 pleaded to the Swedish people to ”open your hearts” in order to help people seeking protection from all parts of the world.

In 2012, Sweden drew international criticism after becoming the first Western democracy to deport two Uyghurs back to China. Not surprisingly, the two were never seen or heard from again, which made Sweden impose a temporarily halt on the deportation of Uyghurs to China. According to the Uyghur Educational Association in Stockholm, not a single Uyghur have since been deported from Sweden.

The Swedish Migration Board did not believe the story of Abdikir and his family.

But this is about to change with the case of Abdikir and his family. The Swedish Migration Board simply do not believe his story, and denied asylum for the family twice. After having been in touch with Abdikir’s lawyer*, it seems to me that the decision was made after an incorrect handling of the case, but first and foremost due to a general lack of knowledge of the current situation in China.

Last month, Jerome Cohen, often referred to as ”the nestor of Chinese law”, agreed that the use of ”ethnic cleansing” in Washington Post to describe the situation in Xinjiang is entirely accurate.

During the past month, the international community have woken up to the extreme extent of the ongoing persecution of Uyghurs in western China. Since 2017 over one million, or about ten percent(!), of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province has been taken to political prison camps without any judicial progress at all. Many have been held there for over a year and counting. Many others have been forced to relocate and attend daily political propaganda classes. Indeed, several scholars have explained the situation of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang as a war on an entire people and its culture, being waged by the mightiest police state in the world.

But the Swedish authorities do not share this view. Abdikir’s lawyer told me that there was never any doubt from Swedish Migration Board on the identity of him and his family. By presenting documentation such as ID-cards, they were early recognised as Uyghurs from China’s Xinjiang province. Instead, the authorities had doubts regarding the truthfulness of Abdikir’s story and the general situation for Uyghurs in western China.

To begin with, the Migration Board questioned the fact that Abdikir could not present more documents from the argument with the authorities over the demolition of his neighbourhood. If there was a legal case, sure there would also be some documentation? Furthermore, there where doubts about the escape. Why was Abdikir put in a hospital, and how could he escape it despite being guarded by police? Also, the Migration Board wouldn’t believe that an arrested man like Abdikir could use his passport to leave the country.

It didn’t help that Abdikir’s lawyer stressed the fact that this kind of documents is not easily obtained in China. Or the fact that no one thought that Abdikir would leave the country immediately upon his escape from the hospital, and hence his passport was still valid as a travel document. In October 2016 the verdict fell – Abdikir and his family was denied asylum.

The lawyer the proceeded to appeal in the Swedish Migration Court. This time, the lawyer presented new documents from China regarding the demolition case, as well as a statements from the Swedish Uyghur Committee and Amnesty International.

The Swedish Uyghur Committee obviously underscored the dire situation for Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the family’s need for protection, especially given that Abdikir was a member of the committee and hence a villain by association in the eyes of the Chinese authorities. More importantly, Amnesty International submitted a report on the specific case of Abdikir, highlighting the risk that the family would be detained and tortured if deported.

Several organisations confirmed to the Swedish Migration Court the potential dangers of Abdikir’s family returning to China. But this didn’t alter the decision made by the Swedish Migration Board.

None of this helped Abdikir’s case. According to the Migration Court, the new documents presented was of the nature that they could easily have been falsified and therefore didn’t carry enough value as evidence. The statements from Amnesty International and the Swedish Uyghur Committee was not deemed enough to change the ”country facts” of China in the migration authorities’ database. (More on that later.)

Like the Migration Board, the Migration Court pointed to some ”contradictory information” that had been given during the asylum process. The lawyer give me an example of such a ”contradictory” statement, which he himself finds to be ”ridiculous”. One person in the story was describes with two slightly different working titles. But this was due to the fact that several different interpreters had been used during the process. Abdakir had given the same title to two different interpreters – who then just happened to translate it a bit different into Swedish.

So, in April 2017, Abdikir and his family got denied asylum in the Migration Court by three votes to one. They were also told that the third and last instance would not listen to their appeal, and at the same time they were also told to leave Sweden.

Uyghurs who have been living or even studying abroad is a particular target in the ongoing crackdown against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This summer, I interviewed a handful of Uyghurs currently living in Sweden, whose families had been targeted and taken to prison camps due to the ”unlawful” act of the relative to apply for asylum abroad.

More specifically, reports last month showed that a Uyghur man who was deported from Germany due to an administrative mistake, disappeared immediately after having arrived to China, and hasn’t been heard from since. After the incident, Germany stopped all deportations of Uyghurs.

Abdikir knew what fate was awaiting them if he took his family back to Xinjiang. So instead – after the ruling from the Swedish Migration Court – he last summer decided to go to Germany instead and apply for refugee status there. But according to EU rules, they were sent back to Sweden again once the German authorities found out that his case had already been opened there.

When speaking to Abdikir this week, the situation for him and his family is dire to say the least. They are now a family of four: the daughter now seven years old, and a two year old son that was born in Sweden. Abdikir’s wife is also pregnant, but is experiencing medical difficulties due to the stressful and uncertain situation.

When arriving to Arlanda airport July 20 this year, the Swedish police was already waiting for the family. They were ordered to go and report to the police in the municipality of Gävle, some 170 kilometers north of Stockholm. Since then, the family have been living in a limbo and are now facing immediate deportation to China.

Upon arrival in Gävle on July 21, the police contacted the migration authorities, who refused to further help the family. Upon being forced out of the police station, Abdikir saw no other solution than to sleep in the park just outside. The police then acted ”kind heartedly” according to Abdikir, and drove the family to temporary living facilities managed by the Gävle municipality, demanding them to provide shelter.

But given the past asylum verdicts, the authorities organising temporary living in Gävle Municipality has no legal obligation to provide long term help for Abdikir and his family. On the contrary, they put pressure on Abdikir to visit the Chinese embassy in Stockholm to apply for passports and travel documents needed to return to Xinjiang.

As I am writing this, September 5, Abdikir and his family will get kicked out from their temporary shelter already next week, if they fail to provide documentation that they have been visiting the Chinese embassy in Stockholm.

On the bright side, the lawyer explained to me that there is still a small chance for the family to stay in Sweden. One of the main reasons for the asylum denial is that the Swedish Migration Court do not deem the situation for Uyghurs in Xinjiang severe enough. When it comes to countries like Afghanistan or Somalia – from which Sweden have seen a large influx of refugees lately – there are new assessments and revaluations being done frequently considering the security situation.

But given the small number of asylum seekers from China, updates on the ”country facts” – ie the facts of the current political situation in a certain country that is then being used to judge the need of protection for asylum seekers – is not being done as often for different Chinese regions.

The asylum denial for Abdakir and his family can be revised if the Swedish Migration Court reassess the security situation in western China.

By the time for the first refusal in 2016, the Swedish Migration Board did recognise the ongoing discrimination against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. But it deemed the situation not serious enough to be classified as ”persecution”. Hence, any applicant must also prove his or hers individual need for protection.

According to Swedish immigration law, the lawyer tells me, a case can be opened again if the circumstances in a country or a region changes to the extent that it constitutes ”a new situation”. By providing new information on either the applicant’s situation or the security situation in a country or a region, a case can not only be reopened but the decision can also be revised.

The lawyer also highlight the fact that China is particularly tricky and difficult to deal with on this point. There are no ”black lists” or other obtainable documents to prove the potential risks any certain individual maybe facing. Neither is it easy to alter the perceived security situation or the ”country facts”, since China do not acknowledge any religious persecution let alone any political camps in Xinjiang, and international organisations are effectively barred from the region to verify this existence.

Attention now needs to be brought to the case of Abdikir and his family, if Swedish authorities are not to repeat its fatal failure of 2012 when it sent two Uyghurs straight into the hands of the Chinese authorities. The Swedish Migration Board needs to be convinced that the persecution against Uyghurs in Xinjiang is now serious enough to reopen and revalue this case.

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* For obvious reasons, neither Abdikir (a shortened name form) or his lawyer wanted their names or contact information in this story. If you would like to get in contact with any of them, please mail me at jojje@inbeijing.se and I will put you in touch.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Abdikir and his family was ”denied asylum twice”. Using the correct terminology, they have applied for asylum only once, but been denied by two instances, namely the Swedish Migration Board and the Swedish Migration Court. The third instance will not hear their appeal.