The United Nations most senior human rights official has requested direct access to China’s Xinjiang region to verify “worrying reports” of re-education camps holding Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
Michelle Bachelet, the high commissioner for human rights, made the announcement amid growing global concern over Chinese treatment of the ethnic minority group.
“We have been asking for direct access to the region to be able to check and verify the worrying reports we are receiving,” Ms Bachelet told a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday.
The authorities are believed to have incarcerated as many as two million Uighurs in “reeducation camps” to promote what the government calls “ethnic unity” in the country’s far west.
Until October 2018, the Chinese government officially denied the existence of the camps.
Since then, reports have noted malnourishment, numerous deaths – particularly among the elderly and infirm – and in some cases the forced administration of psychiatric drugs.
Former detainees have alleged torture and said they were forced to learn Chinese Communist Party propaganda.
China has rejected criticism of its actions in Xinjiang, saying it protects the religion and culture of minorities, and its security measures are required to combat the influence of “extremist” groups they claim have been inciting violence there.
It has also emerged more than a million Han Chinese people have reportedly moved into the homes of Uighur Muslim families to report on whether they display Islamic or unpatriotic beliefs.
The informants, who describe themselves as “relatives” of the families they are staying with, are said to have received specific instructions on how to get them to let their guard down, including offering them cigarettes and alcohol.
Shohrat Zakir, a high-ranking Xinjiang government official, told state-run news agency Xinhua the Chinese government was fighting “terrorism and extremism” in accordance with United Nations resolutions, and referred to those in camps as “trainees”.
“Through vocational training, most trainees have been able to reflect on their mistakes and see clearly the essence and harm of terrorism and religious extremism,” he said.
The UN’s decision to intervene comes a week after a 29-year-old Uighur Muslim woman said she was tortured and abused at an internment camp.
Mihrigul Tursun told reporters in Washington she was interrogated for four days in a row without sleep, had her hair shaved, was electrocuted and was subjected to an intrusive medical examination following her second arrest in China in 2017.
Last week over 270 scholars from 26 countries published a statement condemning the “mass human rights abuses and deliberate attacks on indigenous cultures” in China.
The statement came after 15 foreign ambassadors who wrote a letter expressing their concern about the incarcerations were told by Chinese officials they should not “interfere in the internal affairs of other countries”.
Germany’s top human rights official, Bärbel Kofler, was recently blocked from visiting the Uighur camps in China.
“I am shocked by reports of the treatment of the Turkic Uighur minority,” Ms Kofler said in a statement. “Unfortunately, my request to travel to Xinjiang was refused. I would have liked to have gained a first-hand impression of the situation there and will continue to push for permission to visit Xinjiang soon.”