Uighur Cultural and Ethnic Genocide in 2021: Understanding Humanitarian Crises Through the Lens of a Continuing Pandemic


What happens when a humanitarian crisis overlaps with a global pandemic? 

Uighurs living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are met face-to-face with this issue on a daily basis.

The Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) was an American counterterrorism effort, initiated by President George W. Bush in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center [1]. Since then, China has used the GWOT as justification for its rampant settler colonialism. It has implicated the Uighurs—Turkic ethnic minorities native to the XUAR—in the fight against terrorism. However, what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) disguises as counterterrorism methods is, in fact, cultural and ethnic genocide.

On March 13, 2019, the United States co-hosted an event with Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom at the UN in Geneva to raise awareness about ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Participants discussed future actions international communities could consider to initiative ahead of protecting fundamental freedoms in Xinjiang. (Flickr, U.S. Mission Photo / Eric Bridiers)

For context, Uighurs in the XUAR undergo intrusive surveillance from the CCP, are forbidden from practicing their religion in the public and private spheres, and are forcibly assimilated into Han Chinese society—wiping the Uighur culture and language that once pervaded every corner of the XUAR. Now, even Kashgar, a rural area in the south of the XUAR that has held its Uighur culture intact for centuries, has abided by the CCP’s policies and forced assimilation. The Uighurs had no choice. After all, disobedience to the CCP in any capacity is met with strict punishment: long-term internment or imprisonment, and sometimes both [2].

The health implications of the Uighur genocide must be addressed immediately. Unknown injectable medications are administered to Uighur internees; several women from these internment camps have reported that these were forced sterilization methods. A former detainee, Tursunay Ziyawudun, reports that these injections caused her to stop having her period. Additionally, due to the physical abuse inflicted by internment camp employees during interrogations, she frequently bleeds from her womb and is now physically incapable of bearing children. Additionally, several Uighur women were forcibly fitted with intrauterine contraceptive devices (IUDs). [3]. As a result of these inhumane efforts at eugenics, birth rates in the mostly Uighur majority regions of Hotan and Kashgar have declined 60 percent from 2015 to 2018 [3]. This is a direct ethnic erasure, revisiting the unethical and grossly dehumanifying programs of eugenics prevalent during the Holocaust [4]. 

On top of these already existing health threats facing the Uighurs, the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged international communities since the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s initial outbreak in Wuhan, China. As of January 23rd, several COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported in the XUAR. In particular, waves of cases surged from mid-July to mid-August and again, from late October to early November [5]. However, it is difficult to gauge the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak in the XUAR, due to a suspected inaccuracy in case reporting by the CCP. 

Though the exact number of currently interned Uighurs is unclear, the XUAR Uighur internment camps have detained somewhere between a million and three million people since the CCP’s crackdown on the Uighurs in 2017 [6]. The internment camp’s gruesome conditions, forced community activities, and collective labor are bound to facilitate community-wide spread, especially when so many people are detained with such limited spatial capacity. While the World Health Organization recommends that people maintain a 1 meter—or three feet—distance, this health regulation becomes more difficult to enforce with higher population densities [7, 8]. In 2019, Mihrigul Tursun, another former Uighur detainee at a state-run internment camp, claimed that each of the camp’s cells was approximately 430 square feet and held about 60 women [9]. Therefore, with the camps’ high population density, internees are more susceptible to COVID-19 community spread.

Additionally, the children of detainees are kept in state facilitated orphanages. It is reported, as of 2019, that “[a] total of 880,500 children–including those whose parents are absent for other reasons–were living in boarding facilities by 2019” [10]. Though it is also unclear how many Uighur children are currently being kept at these orphanages during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is known that each facility contains a minimum of 100 beds [11]. Thus, community spread is also a high risk among Uighur children. 

In the case that Uighur detainees or their children do end up contracting the disease, quarantine facilities and hospitals are not readily accessible. The ones that are open to Uighurs are cramped. 

To further exacerbate this issue, Uighurs—especially Uighur women—live in a fear of state-run medical facilities. Historically, state-provided care has resulted in mass forced sterilization of Uighur women. Additionally, most doctors are of Han Chinese descent, which may disincentivize Uighurs from receiving care due to the long history of violence and tension between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs, which traces back to the early 20th century [4].

(Flickr, U.S. Mission Photo / Eric Bridiers)

Though the CCP claimed that all of the Uighur detainees in the internment camps were released in December 2019—right at the onset of the community spread of COVID-19—there exists limited evidence to support this claim. Additionally, because no human rights organizations and media outlets have access to these camps, the true condition of these internment camps—especially during the pandemic—is unclear. However, we can safely assume that any form of community spread would ravage these camps. 

Dr. Anna Hayes, senior lecturer in international relations at James Cook University, who specializes in Uighur human insecurity in the People’s Republic of China, confirms the tendency for secrecy among CCP officials about public health crises.

“I doubt we would ever know,” she said, referring to the publicization of outbreaks within the internment camps. “But [we know] there is community transmission, it’s only a matter of time, if it hasn’t happened already,” she added [12].

We must demand justice for the Uighurs living in the XUAR, to combat these concurrent and dual crises. China must immediately release the Uighur detainees to their homes. The international community must hold the CCP accountable. An immediate first step is to call for the International Criminal Court to prosecute China in mass cultural and ethnic genocide. We cannot wait for the deaths of Uighur internees from COVID-19 to act.


  1. History.com Editors. “A Timeline of the U.S.-Led War on Terror.” 01 Feb. 2019. Web. 18 Jan. 2021.
  2. Ramzy, Austin, and Chris Buckley. “‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Nov. 2019. Web. 18 Jan. 2021.
  3. Press, The Associated. “China Cuts Uighur Births with IUDs, Abortion, Sterilization.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, 29 June 2020. Web. 18 Jan. 2021.
  4. Roberts, S. R. (2020). ” 6. Cultural genocide, 2017–2020″. In The War on the Uyghurs. Princeton: Princeton University Press. doi: https://doi-org.yale.idm.oclc.org/10.1515/9780691202211-010
  5. “China Reports 24 New COVID-19 Cases.” CNA. 13 Dec. 2020. Web. 18 Jan. 2021.
  6. “Muslims Detained in Chinese Concentration Camps.” Save Uighur. 10 Dec. 2020. Web. 18 Jan. 2021.
  7. “Advice for the Public on COVID-19.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization. Web. 18 Jan. 2021.
  8. Rocklöv, Joacim, and Henrik Sjödin. “High Population Densities Catalyse the Spread of COVID-19.” OUP Academic. Oxford University Press, 29 Mar. 2020. Web. 18 Jan. 2021.
  9. Hearing: The Communist Party’s Crackdown on Religion in China (2018) (testimony of Mihrigul Tursun). Print.
  10. Zenz, Adrian. “Parent-Child Separation in Yarkand County, Kashgar.” Medium. Medium, 19 Oct. 2020. Web. 18 Jan. 2021.
  11. Wang, Yanan. “China Treats Uighur Kids as ‘orphans’ after Parents Seized.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, 21 Sept. 2018. Web. 18 Jan. 2021.[12] “Covid-19 Outbreak in Xinjiang Prompts Fears of Spread inside China’s Camps.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 28 July 2020. Web. 18 Jan. 2021.

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