UN Refugee Agency Failing to Protect Uyghur Refugees: New UHRP Report

Press Release Report I Escaped_png

June 20, 2023 | 7:00 a.m. EST
For Immediate Release
Contact: Omer Kanat +1 (202) 790-1795, Peter Irwin +1 (646) 906-7722

The UN’s global refugee agency has failed to fulfill its mandate to safeguard Uyghurs outside their homeland, according to a new report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), “I Escaped, But Not to Freedom”: Failure to Protect Uyghur Refugees.

Chinese government pressure on host states, and institutional shortcomings on the part of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has left Uyghurs without meaningful protection under the international refugee regime. UHRP calls on national governments to rapidly step up resettlement programs to protect Uyghur survivors of ongoing atrocity crimes.

“This report exposes the pressure China exerts internationally to ensure Uyghurs do not escape their nightmare. It’s shocking that even Uyghurs outside China cannot find safe haven from persecution,” said UHRP Executive Director Omer Kanat.

Mr. Kanat added, “Uyghur refugees are under threat from China’s transnational repression in multiple ways. China harasses their families remaining in East Turkistan, to coerce individuals to return to China or to drop their request for refugee status. China strongly pressures host states to deport Uyghurs, and there are far too many cases where UNHCR isn’t helping them.”

UHRP conducted interviews with Uyghur refugees in Turkey, Pakistan, and India. Interviewees expressed deep fears about potential deportation to China. All reported immense stress caused by concerns for their family members still suffering in East Turkistan. There was a prevailing feeling of powerlessness, frustration, and hopelessness, stemming from the lack of any perceived opportunity for safe haven. 

“We have to be very cautious about assuming that UNHCR can provide protection to Uyghur refugees. Our findings show that UNHCR is frequently unable to carry out its mandate. More must be done publicly and privately to close these protection gaps,” said report author Ben Carrdus, UHRP Senior Researcher

The plight of Uyghur refugees across the globe is severe and urgent, but the scale of the crisis is not massive, with numbers ranging in the low hundreds in some countries. For governments committed to responding to atrocity crimes through survivor-centered approaches, there is a realistic prospect to effectively mitigate the refugee emergency and provide safe haven, by standing up a relatively modest program of resettlement. 

The action agenda

UHRP urges governments to follow Canada’s plan to resettle 10,000 Uyghur refugees in 2024–2025. The United States, the first government to acknowledge China’s mistreatment of Uyghurs as a genocide, should take decisive action by implementing a pro-active resettlement program for Uyghurs. The US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) should expand its existing “Welcome Corps” initiative to encompass Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples who have escaped the genocide. Likewise, other governments should establish their own programs to facilitate the resettlement of Uyghurs.

UNHCR should convene governments to assist in collectively resettling Uyghurs at risk around the world. UNHCR Thailand should renew efforts to register and resettle the Uyghur men held indefinitely in immigration detention in Thailand since 2004, and urgently request that the Thai government provide meaningful access to health care.

Civil society organizations should make resources available for the resettlement of Uyghur refugees in the U.S. and elsewhere.