UNITED NATIONS (AA) – Advocacy groups for China’s persecuted Uighurs are warning of the risk of coronavirus spreading through camps in which vast numbers of the mostly-Muslim minority are being held in the country’s northwest.
Pro-Uighur campaign groups, such as the World Uyghur Congress and the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, have warned of the dangers faced by as many as 2 million Uighurs locked up in often-crowded camps.
As of Thursday, more than 3,500 people had signed a petition on the change.org website urging the World Health Organization (WHO) to take action “before coronavirus outbreaks in [the] concentration camp.”
“The risk of mass outbreaks and coronavirus related deaths in China’s concentration camps in the Uyghur region remains ignored despite confirmed cases in the region and the deplorable conditions in the camps,” says the petition.
“If the international community fails to pressure China to take adequate measures to prevent outbreaks in the region, the nature of its mass network of concentration and forced labor camps will add an entirely new dimension to China’s ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs.”
While China’s coronavirus outbreak has been centered in Hubei province, in the east of the country, campaigners warn that it could spread to the northwestern Xinjiang region and run like wildfire through unsanitary Uighur detention camps.
“Uyghurs in the diaspora fear if the virus isn’t already in the camps, when it does reach them, the consequences will be catastrophic, leading to mass outbreaks and high mortalities very quickly given reports of overcrowding,” says the petition.
The coronavirus death toll in China surged to 1,362 on Wednesday when 242 deaths were recorded in Hubei. Nearly 60,000 cases have been reported nationwide and the WHO has declared the outbreak a global health emergency.
UN experts and campaigners say 1 million Uighurs and others, mostly Muslims, have been caged in the far western Xinjiang region in a crackdown that has been criticized by the United States, European nations and others.
China’s government has repeatedly said its camps offer voluntary education and training to help stamp out extremism.