For three years, Sadam Abdusalam watched his newborn grow into a toddler through the screen of a mobile phone. He was thousands of kilometres away in Australia, and his son Lufti and his wife Nadila were stuck in China’s Xinjiang province, unable to leave.
A Uyghur originally from Xinjiang, Mr Abdusalam was separated from his family for three years after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seized Nadila’s passport in 2017. He said the CCP began taking “as many” Uyghurs’ passports as they could in that year.
‘We will take you to the camp’
“First they taking passports – after a few weeks they start putting people to the concentration camps,” Mr Abdusalam told SBS News. “Even they tried to put my wife in concentration camp,” he said, adding it was only because she was breastfeeding that didn’t happen.
“That’s what they told Nadila [that when] your son is one years old, we will take you to the camp.” Mr Abdusalam said the CCP blocked his multiple visa applications he filed from Australia, to return to China to see his family.
“In 2017, we said ‘goodbye’ to each other,” he said. “We didn’t see each other again for three years.”
Reporting ‘isn’t enough’
Mr Abdusalam is a victim of what the United Nations calls “arbitrary family separation” enforced by the CCP. “The physical trauma is nothing compared to the mental trauma,” he said.
He was only able to “free” his wife and child with the help of his lawyer, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other groups, as outlined in his book Freeing My Family. Mr Abdusalam says the recent reports and articles discussing the enforced slave labour, rape, and mistreatment of Uyghurs is important, but not enough.
Mr Abdusalam says he hasn’t read the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ long-awaited Xinjiang report, released last week, which alleges the CCP may be responsible for crimes against humanity.
He says that’s because he doesn’t need to: he’s already experienced the content discussed first-hand, and reading about them causes trauma to resurface. “I feel like people are arguing over something we already know the answer to,” he said.
That answer, he says, is to start banning products with links to forced labour in Xinjiang.
Calls for banning products made by forced labour
“Feeling sorry for Uyghurs [by reporting about it], is not good enough,” he said. Mr Abdusalam says he met Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong before the 2022 federal election, and says she told him she was sympathetic to his story.
His uncle went missing in Xinjiang 2017, and his family still doesn’t know where he is. “And some of my friends, I still don’t know where they are,” he said. Mr Abdusalam says now Senator Wong is in government, “she’s got the power to do something”.
“Put a ban on any products and any company that’s involved with forced labour, and put sanctions on the Chinese officials committing crimes against humanity,” he said. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the government has “consistently voiced its deep concern about human rights violations in Xinjiang, including credible reports of forced labour”.
“The Australian Government will appoint an Anti-Slavery Commissioner and is committed to further strengthening the Modern Slavery Act. A statutory review is currently underway,” a spokesman added in a statement.
What are Australia’s modern slavery laws?
Australia has modern slavery laws requiring companies to state risks around modern slavery in their supply chains and actions they’ve taken to address those risks. Modern slavery refers to areas of exploitation such as forced labour, debt bondage, child labour, forced marriage, sex trafficking, and other forms of slavery.
Associate Professor of Modern Slavery at the University of Notre Dame, Martijn Boersma, says there are shortfalls in Australian companies’ modern slavery mitigation.
A study co-authored by Mr Boersma found that more than half of Australian textile companies importing garments from Xinjiang didn’t flag the exploitation of Uyghurs as a significant risk for modern slavery, as required under the law.
“Companies are not mapping their supply chain risks correctly, whether that is because they don’t know it’s there, or because they’re willingly not doing so,” Mr Boersma told SBS News.
In the US, there are laws banning the importation of goods linked to Uyghur forced labour, giving customs the power to withhold and release any products they suspect may come from labour camps in Xinjiang.
How Australia could follow the US
Mr Boersma says adopting a similar policy in Australia, where products are banned rather than solely having reporting obligations, would help fight against modern slavery and the exploitation of Uyghurs.
“It’s a step that you almost have to take, otherwise you’re just being completely immoral,” he said.
He says an additional policy banning products would “put teeth” into the Modern Slavery act and provide the government with an update rather than solely backlash against violations in research reports.
What did the UN report say about modern slavery in Xinjiang?
On 31 August 2022, the UN released the report. The main takeaway has been that the UN alleges China “may have committed crimes against humanity”. It also outlines reports of rape, torture, arbitrary family separation, violations against reproductive rights, forced medicating and other alleged crimes.
The report starts by criticising the loose terminology for “extremism” and shows that the CCP’s “Strike Hard” campaign has the power to arbitrarily detain Uyghurs simply for having a beard or wearing certain garments.
It also includes the testimonials of Uyghurs who’ve been detained in so-called “re-education camps”, which the UN says detainees are forcefully brought to without trial or the presence of a lawyer. The report also describes the forms of torture experienced in ‘Vocational Education and Training Centres’, the term used by the CCP for the Xinjiang camps.
“Their accounts included being beaten with batons, including electric batons while strapped in a so called “tiger chair”; being subjected to interrogation with water being poured in their faces; prolonged solitary confinement; and being forced to sit motionless on small stools for prolonged periods of time,” the report reads.
“Tiger chairs are generally devices whereby an individual is strapped to a chair by their hands and feet. This is often accompanied by beatings or other forms of torture.” The UN says officers at the camps had “shoot to kill orders” for detainees trying to escape, as outlined in the Xinjiang Police Files.
The articles was originally published by SBS News.