Read, Debate: Engage.

The unknown fate of Uyghur refugees detained in India

May 16, 2023
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#Uyghurs, #Kashmir, #asylum seekers, #Xinjiang, #refugees
located:India, China
by:Umer Maqbool
For Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China, crossing the border into India marks the beginning of a new ordeal.

In 2013, three Uyghur siblings had run away from their home in Xinjiang to escape Chinese persecution - but their freedom was short-lived: The young siblings were nabbed by military personnel at a border outpost in Ladakh, along the de-facto border between India and China in Indian-administered Kashmir. 

The three were then handed over to civilian authorities, stood trial and were sentenced. But despite completing their jail term, the siblings continue to languish in prison under a law that allows the authorities in Kashmir to detain any person without trial. They also face the prospect of being deported back to China.

67-year-old Muhammad Shafi Lassu, a rights activist and a lawyer fighting to obtain the siblings asylum status in Kashmir, told FairPlanet that he has been pleading with the Indian authorities to stop their repatriation to China.

"I have approached the authorities multiple times to seek their release and allow them to stay in India, but my pleas remain unanswered," he said.

Documents reviewed by FairPlanet show that the three siblings - Adil, Abdul Khaliq and Salamu - who were aged 23, 22 and 20 respectively when they fled China, were apprehended by the Indian army on 12 June, 2013 near the Sultan Chusku glacier in Ladakh's Let district and handed over to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, a paramilitary force guarding India’s border with China, the very next day.

The Xinjiang province of China, where Uyghurs live, shares a border with Indian-administered Kashmir, which was bifurcated in 2019 into two Union Territories that are run directly by the federal government.

After being questioned for nearly two months, the paramilitary force handed the siblings to the local police, which charged them for entering India without valid legal travel documents and possession of knives. On 17 July, 2014, a court sentenced them to a year and a half in prison, claiming it was issuing a lenient sentence due to their young age.

"They ran away because Chinese authorities were torturing and imprisoning youngsters. They told me some of their acquaintances were tortured," said Lassu, who met the three for the first time in 2013 when they were brought to a court in Ladakh.

"How long will they remain in jail? Are they destined to die in jail?" he asked.

Lassu stresses that the siblings should not be handed over to China, "Everyone knows how Uyghurs are maltreated and persecuted in their homeland. They would be executed or imprisoned if they are repatriated."

Lassu’s concern surrounding their return to China stems from human rights abuses committed against Uyghur and other Muslims in Xinjiang province by the Chinese authorities.

Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner said that China’s arbitrary and discriminatory detention of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities may constitute crimes against humanity. Rights groups claim that the Chinese government has imprisoned more than a million Uyghurs in internment camps.

Arrest, trial and sentence

The trio completed their sentence in 2015, but were immediately booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA) - a detention law mostly used against armed militants and dissident politicians seeking independence in Indian-administered Kashmir. The authorities continue issuing fresh detention orders against the siblings every six months to keep them behind the bars.

In the latest detention orders signed against them, Kashmiri authorities state that it is necessary to detain the siblings under PSA until arrangements are made for their repatriation to their native country.

The Uyghur siblings also petitioned India's federal Home Ministry against their deportation to China, citing the atrocities committed against Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. The Indian Home Ministry told them that it has already ordered their repatriation to China, a decision the siblings then challenged in court.

No clear asulym process 

The Indian government’s refusal to grant the siblings asylum stems from its indifferent stance on human rights violations in Xinjiang and the absence of a law or policy to deal with Uyghur refugees.

India doesn’t have friendly relations with China, but it has nonetheless maintained a neutral position on the persecution of Uyghurs and avoids criticising Beijing over it. Last year, India abstained from voting on a draft resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council to hold a debate on the human rights situation in Xinjiang region.

In the past, the Indian federal government cancelled a visa it had granted to prominent Uyghur activist Dolkun Isa who was scheduled to attend a conference in India after China protested through diplomatic channels.

The prolonged detention of the Ughyur siblings in Kashmir has also shone the spotlight on a broader issue: India's incoherent asylum process.

India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and does not have a well-defined national policy on refugees. While it hosts thousands of refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka, the absence of a law or policy on asylum issues allows India to deal with them arbitrarily.

The country has become increasingly hostile towards Muslim refugees after the Hindu nationalist party led by now Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. Modi's government told India’s Supreme Court that Rohingya refugees pose a serious potential threat to national security and detained 150 of them in Indian-administered Kashmir.

"The Government of India should consider it a humanitarian issue, and not look at it through legalities and technicalities," Phunchok Stobdan, India’s former ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and a foreign policy expert, told FairPlanet.

Suraj Girijashanker, assistant professor at Jindal Global Law School in Haryana, India and an expert on refugee issues, said that the government should have the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) decide on the matter.

"Given that India does not have a national asylum law or asylum process, the state should defer to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Delhi," he told FairPlanet. "UNHCR conducts what is known as refugee status determination for select nationalities on behalf of the government in India in the absence of state procedures."

He added that they may also be able to look into the possibility of repatriating some Uyghur asylum seekers to third country.

Girijashanker argued that the Indian government cannot forcibly return anyone without first determining whether or not they are refugees. "If they are at risk of torture in China, then forcible return is also not permitted. Forcible returns from India in practice, however, is another matter," he said, adding that states are particularly sensitive about relations with China.

Image by Matt Hrkac

Article written by:
Photograph (1)
Umer Maqbool
India China
Muhammad Shafi Lassu.
© Umer Maqbool
Muhammad Shafi Lassu.
Official documentation of the three Uyghur siblings held in detention in Indian-administered Kashmir.
© Umer Maqbool
Official documentation of the three Uyghur siblings held in detention in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Call to Action
Support Radio Free Asia
Support now