US lawmakers introduce bipartisan bill to give priority refugee status to Uyghurs


‘The United States cannot turn our back to those fleeing this persecution,’one sponsor says.

US lawmakers introduce bipartisan bill to give priority refugee status to Uyghurs

A Uyghur demonstrator rallys in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., in support of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, on Oct. 1, 2020.

U.S. lawmakers have introduced a bipartisan bill in Congress that would grant priority refugee status to Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China.

It designates Uyghurs and other ethnic groups persecuted by the Chinese government as priority 2, or P2, and expedites their ability to apply for asylum in the United States.

“The horrific atrocities that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are facing at the hands of the Chinese government are a global human rights emergency, and the United States cannot turn our back to those fleeing this persecution,” said Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat from Virginia, one of the sponsors of the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act.

In addition to Wexton, representatives María Elvira Salazar, a Florida Republican, Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, Don Beyer and Gerry Connolly, both Virginia Democrats, introduced the bill on Wednesday.

The P-2 designation is for Uyghurs oppressed by China for expressing political views and religious beliefs or attending political, religious and cultural activities. Those given the designation will receive special humanitarian help and will receive assistance with resettlement and the U.S. asylum process.  

The bill also seeks to protect Uyghur refugees who have fled to countries outside China besides the United States, by prioritizing U.S. diplomatic efforts in those nations which usually face great pressure from the Chinese government to extradite Uyghurs back to China.

The move comes at a time when Uyghur rights groups have called on the international community to take concrete action against China for committing severe rights abuses against the mostly Muslim group in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

China’s repression of the Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang has been well documented, with first-hand reports of detention in “re-education” camps and prisons, torture, sexual assaults, forced labor and the separation of Uyghur children from their parents.

Allegations of genocide

The American government and the parliaments of several Western countries have said the abuses amount to genocide or crimes against humanity.

“The United States cannot simply condemn Beijing for its genocide and pat itself on the back,” Meeks said in the statement. “We have a moral and international responsibility to offer aid and assistance to those that are trying to escape the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] atrocities in Xinjiang. 

“Providing expanded refugee protections to Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities is the right thing to do and a clear way to demonstrate that America walks the talk when it comes to human rights.”

Rushan Abbas, executive director of the human rights group Campaign for Uyghurs, said the introduction of the bill is a crucial, though overdue, step forward in addressing the plight of the Uyghurs.

“It should have already happened back in 2020 when [former U.S. Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo acknowledged that China was carrying out the Uyghur genocide and committing crimes against humanity,” she said.

“At the very least, it is of utmost importance to have a bill that will help expedite asylum cases for Uyghurs who have been residing in the U.S. for years, enduring a prolonged wait for their cases to be resolved,” she said. 

Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, said the bill’s passage would be a “significant milestone” following the Canadian government’s acceptance of 10,000 Uyghur refugees and serve as encouragement for Uyghurs who have fled China for other countries. 

Canadian move

In February, the Canadian parliament unanimously passed a motion to resettle the Uyghur refugees in Canada in response to the Chinese government’s efforts to forcibly return members of the mostly Muslim group back to China, where they are at risk of persecution. 

With a focus on Uyghurs from other countries rather than directly from China, the resettlements are expected to begin in 2024.

“Moreover, for future generations, this event would be etched in history as a testament to the United States’ unwavering commitment to defending the rights of the Uyghurs, potentially inspiring other nations to take similar action,” Isa said. 

“From a moral and international law standpoint, it will exert pressure on countries that are attempting to repatriate Uyghurs to China, serving as a deterrent against further crimes.”

Tursunay Ziyawudun, who was previously detained in a “re-education” camp but now lives in the United States, said the bill is significant for Uyghurs whose asylum applications remain unresolved in the U.S.

“There are numerous Uyghurs who have been in the process for over a decade, and their cases still linger in uncertainty,” she said, adding that when she stayed temporarily in Kazakhstan and Turkey before reaching the U.S., she lived in constant fear of being forcibly sent back to China.

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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