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Uyghurs In Afghanistan: A Bargaining Chip?

The year 1976… Afghanistan was highly influenced by the West at that time, as the Global Community started considering Kabul as Paris of the East. Tuhan, along with her parents, had arrived in Afghanistan. More than four decades have passed since then, and many rulers have ruled the South Asian nation during this period. Tuhan has been facing new dangers since the recent political change in Kabul. She had taken shelter in Afghanistan 45 years ago, after being harassed by the Chinese authorities. Now, the Taliban have decided to strengthen ties with China. Tuhan is not sure whether the Taliban have any plan to send them back to China!

Now, Tuhan is the head of her family. While she spends the day with her sewing machine, her husband is a painter. Somehow, they run the family together. However, the scenario changed after the Taliban delegation met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, a major port city in northeastern China, in July 2021. While the Chinese Minister described the Taliban as an “important military and political force” in Afghanistan, the Taliban leaders made it clear that they would boost ties with the Asian Giant.

According to the Associate Professor of International Development and Director of the International Development Studies MA programme (IDS) at George Washington University, Sean R Roberts, more than 3,000 Uyghur Muslims live in Afghanistan. The largest number of Uyghurs crossed the border to take refuge in Afghanistan after the Chinese Communist Party took control of Xinjiang in 1949. Many fled China to Afghanistan in the late 1970s, and the majority of them became Afghan citizens later. However, Chinese refugee is written on their identity cards.

The Taliban have maintained cordial ties with China since 1996, when they had come to Power in Afghanistan for the first time. China has stepped up pressure on the Taliban to prevent the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from becoming active in Xinjiang Province that shares a border with Afghanistan. The Chinese foreign minister raised the Uyghur issue during his meeting with the top Taliban leadership in Tianjin in July.

Uyghurs in Afghanistan

The Taliban are eager to maintain friendly ties with China. However, the question arises here is: Whether Tuhan and the other Uighurs in Afghanistan would have to pay for the Taliban-China friendship? Nearly 3,000 Uyghur Muslims, living in Afghanistan, have no answer to this.

According to a report, unlike some other potentially at-risk groups in Afghanistan, the Uyghurs do not have a State-ally to work on their behalf, a fact that might make them more vulnerable under the Taliban Rule. “This is a community without state representation of any sort,” said Roberts. He stressed: “They are watching other countries lift out people who are either citizens or have some sort of ethnic connection – Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, etc. But, the Uyghurs, I think, must feel like nobody speaks for them right now.

Sean R Roberts

Meanwhile, efforts are being made by Non-Governmental Groups to get Uyghurs out. However, they face the same obstacles as everyone else. Abdulaziz Naseri, a Uyghur refugee living in Turkey, told the British Media that he had collected a list of names with the help of Uyghurs inside the war-ravaged country and was submitting it via activist groups to Government Officials in the US, the UK and Turkey. “We are doing our best to get them out,” said Naseri.

Again, there is a reported history of such deportation, according to Bradley Jardine, an analyst at the Washington-based Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. “Deportations of Uyghurs have taken place historically under the Taliban, with 13 Uyghurs handed over to China following a (2000) meeting between Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin and Taliban Leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar,” Jardine told the press. According to to Jardine, Afghanistan has historically been viewed as a safer place for the Uyghurs than neighbouring Central Asian countries because it lacks a formal Extradition Treaty with China. Jardine also referenced the reported deportation by the Afghan Government of Israel Ahmat, a Uyghur businessman, in 2015.

According to the Chinese government, more than 12 million Uyghurs live in Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan. As many as 2,000 ethnic Uyghurs, born or living in Afghanistan, have been placed in jeopardy by the Taliban takeover, with many fearing they will be deported to China to join an estimated one million fellow Uyghurs in Xinjiang internment camps.

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