UN: China’s Mistreatment of the Uyghurs Amounts to Modern-Day Slavery

A new report from the United Nations on modern slavery provides further documentation of China’s mistreatment of the Muslim minority.

A protest is held in Washington, D.C., against the crimes being committed against Uyghur Muslims.
A protest is held in Washington, D.C., against the crimes being committed against Uyghur Muslims. (photo: Kuzzat Altay / Unsplash)

A new report from the United Nations on modern slavery provides further documentation of China’s mistreatment of the Uyghur ethnic group, a Muslim minority that, according to some human-rights groups, is suffering genocide. 

The U.N.’s special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, wrote that it is “reasonable to conclude” that forced labor among ethnic minorities, including the Uyghurs, “in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing has been occurring in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China.”

Obokata identified two state-mandated systems that have contributed to the forced labor of the Uyghurs, one of which is a system that detains minorities and subjects them to work placements, while the other system shifts rural laborers into other forms of low-skilled, low-paid work. While the Chinese government claims that the programs provide work opportunities for minorities, the report found that “indicators of forced labor pointing to the involuntary nature of work rendered by affected communities have been present in many cases.”

“Further, given the nature and extent of powers exercised over affected workers during forced labor, including excessive surveillance, abusive living and working conditions, restriction of movement through internment, threats, physical and/or sexual violence and other inhuman or degrading treatment, some instances may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity, meriting a further independent analysis,” the report reads. 

In recent years, Uyghurs — with estimates ranging as high as 1.8 million — have been detained in hundreds of “reeducation camps” in China’s Xinjiang, a sparsely populated autonomous region in the far west of the country. Inside the camps, the Uyghurs are reportedly subjected to torture and political indoctrination. Outside the camps, Uyghurs are monitored by pervasive police forces and facial-recognition technology.

China has for years conflated the Uyghurs’ culture and religious activities with extremism and separatism. The government at one time denied the camps even existed but has since shifted to defending its actions as a reasonable response to a national security threat.

The United States formally labeled China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide in January 2021. 

China’s crackdown on Xinjiang also includes alleged coercion to have contraception devices inserted, and even full sterilization, along with systematic rape. Hospitals in the province have reportedly committed forced late-term abortions on Uyghur women and killed newborn Uyghur babies to enforce China's family-planning policies, according to a former hospital worker in the region. Uyghur women, who used to have among the highest fertility rates in the country, have seen precipitous drops in fertility in recent years. 

The Vatican has remained largely silent on the persecution of the Uyghurs, though Pope Francis did describe the Uyghurs as a persecuted people in a book published in 2021. The Chinese foreign ministry responded by saying that the claim was groundless.

Catholic leaders have condemned China’s actions in Xinjiang, with two Asian cardinals and 74 other religious leaders releasing a statement in August 2020 calling the Chinese government's treatment of Uyghurs "one of the most egregious human tragedies since the Holocaust.”

The U.N. report documented several other forms of modern-day slavery, including sexual slavery perpetrated by groups like ISIS and Boko Haram in the Middle East and Nigeria and the plight of minority women and girls in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions of Ethiopia who have been “subjected to rape, sexual mutilation and other forms of sexual violence by parties to the armed conflict.”

Chinese flags on barbed wired wall in Kashgar (Kashi), Xinjiang, China.

China Defiant in Face of Uyghurs UN Report

The report includes testimony from 40 people who say they were subjected to arbitrary detention as well as various forms of torture and humiliation, including sexual mistreatment.