Uyghurs at risk as China cozies up to Taliban

By Ivan Watson and CNN staff (Arslan Khakiyev and James Griffiths contributed to this report.)

Updated 6:32 AM ET, Sunday, September 5, 2021

As China woos the Taliban, Uyghurs in Afghanistan fear for their lives.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's political chief, in Tianjin, northern China on July 28. CNN.

Tuhan's family crossed the border from China's western Xinjiang region to Afghanistan 45 years ago to escape persecution.

Now, as the Taliban exerts control over the country, she fears she and other ethnic Uyghurs could be sent back to China by members of the militant group keen to curry favor with Beijing, which has been accused of carrying out a genocide on the Muslim minority.

Tuhan, who is using a pseudonym to protect her identity from the Taliban, is caught between a homeland where Uyghurs are facing increasing repression, and an adopted country where they are considered outsiders.

What worries them most is that they could be deported to China.

Over the past few years, the Chinese government has escalated its security and religious crackdown in Xinjiang. Up to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are believed to have passed through a sprawling network of detention centers across the region, according to the US State Department.

Former detainees allege they were subjected to intense political indoctrination, forced labor, torture, and even sexual abuse. China vehemently denies allegations of human rights abuses, insisting the camps are voluntary "vocational training centers" designed to stamp out religious extremism and terrorism.

Tuhan said she fears what will happen to her and her family if they're forced to return.

"All these past years, life was difficult ... But what is happening now is the worst," she said, referring to the Taliban takeover. "It is just a matter of time before (the Taliban) find out that we are Uyghurs. Our lives are in danger."

"China refugee"

Tuhan was just 7 years old when she and her parents fled Yarkand, an oasis on the ancient Silk Road near the Chinese border with Afghanistan.

At the time, Kabul was known as the "Paris of the East," and for ethnic Uyghurs, it was a sanctuary from China's Cultural Revolution, a decade of political and social turmoil from 1966 to 1976, during which Islam -- like all other religions -- was harshly cracked down upon.

Tuhan is one of up to 3,000 Uyghurs in Afghanistan, according to Sean Roberts, a professor at George Washington University and author of "The War on the Uyghurs," making them a tiny minority in the country of more than 37 million.

Many of them fled China after the Communist Party took control of Xinjiang in 1949. Some -- like Tuhan -- migrated in the mid-1970s, during the chaos of the last years of the Cultural Revolution, crossing mountain passes in the south of Xinjiang to seek refuge, Roberts said.

Many of the Uyghurs now hold Afghan citizenship, but their identification cards still identify them as Chinese refugees -- including second generation immigrants, according to an ID photo shared with CNN and accounts of two Uyghurs.

Abdul Aziz Naseri, whose parents fled Xinjiang in 1976, said his ID still identifies him as a "China refugee," even though he was born in Kabul.

Naseri, who now lives in Turkey, said he has collected the names of more than 100 Uyghur families who want to flee Afghanistan.

"They're afraid from China, because the Taliban was dealing with China behind the door. And they are afraid to (be) sent back to China," he said.

A "good friend"

There's reason for Uyghurs in Afghanistan to be worried, say experts.

In July, a Taliban delegation paid a high-profile visit to Tianjin, where they met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Wang called the Taliban "an important military and political force in Afghanistan" and declared that they would play "an important role in the country's peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process."

In return, the Taliban called China a "good friend" and pledged to "never allow any forces to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China," according to a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the meeting.

And last week, a Taliban spokesperson called for closer relations with Beijing in an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.

"China is a very important and strong country in our neighborhood, and we have had very positive and good relations with China in the past," Zabihullah Mujahid said. "We want to make these relations even stronger and want to improve the mutual trust level."

Roberts said Uyghurs' fears the Taliban could deport them to China to gain more favor with Beijing were legitimate.

"(The Taliban) have a lot of reasons to try to ingratiate Beijing in terms of gaining international recognition, in terms of getting financial assistance at the time when most of the international community is not giving them financial assistance," he said.

Tuhan's concern over potentially being forced to return to China is deepened by Beijing's increasingly aggressive efforts in recent years to bring overseas Uyghurs back to Xinjiang, including from Muslim countries.

CNN has collected more than a dozen accounts detailing the alleged detention and deportation of Uyghurs at China's request in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

In a report published in June, the Uyghur Human Rights Project said there were least 395 cases of Uyghurs being deported, extradited, or rendered back to China from countries across the world since 1997.

In a statement to CNN, China's Foreign Ministry called the Uyghur Human Rights Project an "outright anti-China separatist organization."

"The so-called data and reports released by them have no impartiality and credibility, and are not worth refuting at all," it said.

Cracking down on militants

The Chinese government has a long history of engaging with the Taliban, dating back to the late 1990s, when the militant group last controlled Afghanistan.

Beijing has repeatedly urged the Taliban to crack down on Uyghur militants in Afghanistan, primarily the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which it has blamed for almost every terror attack or violent incident in Xinjiang and