Uyghurs Without Passports: Forced Legibility and Illegibility

Uyghurs march in Brussels to call for an end to mass detentions of Uyghurs in China, April 27, 2018. Photo: RFA

By Henryk Szadziewski
May 12, 2020

I am among thousands of Uyghurs who cannot renew their passports and like them I cannot make plans. I cannot enroll at university, I cannot work, and I cannot travel. I don’t want to go back to China to get a new passport out of fear I will never come back. I don’t know what to do. 

This is what Ablet, a Uyghur male in his twenties, told me late last year. I was researching looming statelessness among Uyghurs overseas for a new Uyghur Human Rights Project report, and Ablet was one of several interviewees in Turkey living without papers. The problem is not contained to Turkey. The Chinese government has presented a stark choice to Uyghurs across the globe with an expiring or expired Chinese passport: return to China and face probable detention or break the law in the country of your residence. 

In speaking with Uyghurs, a pattern of denial for passport renewals at Chinese consulates became clear. The only option for renewal is to use a one-way travel document to China and “apply” there. Given the Chinese state has interned and imprisoned Uyghurs with any overseas connection, the best that can be said for this option is it is disingenuous. As the recently leaked Qaraqash Document revealed, even applying for a passport could land a Uyghur in a camp.