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Belgium seeks Uighur family in Xinjiang after disappearance

Police patrol a night food market near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, one day before the Eid al-Fitr holiday in June 2017
AFP/File
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Beijing (AFP)

A Belgian diplomat was expected to travel to China's restive Xinjiang region on Tuesday to confirm the whereabouts of a Uighur family that was escorted from Belgium's embassy in Beijing by police last month.

The disappearance of the woman and her four children has alarmed her husband, as an estimated one million ethnic Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are believed to be held in internment camps in Xinjiang.

Abdulhamid Tursun, a political refugee in Belgium, said he has not heard from his family since May 31, a few days after they left the embassy under murky circumstances.

"I am worried about their safety," he told AFP. "I hope they can safely come be at my side as soon as possible, and our family can reunite."

Belgium's decision to dispatch a diplomat to Xinjiang comes as the embassy faces criticism for allegedly enabling Chinese police to take the family back to Xinjiang -- where they could face detention.

"The case exposes the additional risk Uighurs in China face even if they want to seek help from foreign governments," said Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International.

"The Belgian embassy set an extremely bad example of how governments put economic interests above human rights," he told AFP.

China's foreign ministry and the Xinjiang government did not immediately respond to AFP requests for comment.

- Police fears -

The mother, Horiyat Abula, and her four children travelled to Beijing at the end of May to complete missing paperwork for their family reunification visas.

According to Tursun, his wife and children panicked upon learning it would take "at least three months" for their visas to be approved and refused to leave the embassy.

They were afraid to return to their hotel because police had visited them multiple times since they arrived in Beijing, he explained.

"The police came in the middle of the night, asking why they came to Beijing, when they would return," he said. "They were very scared, they didn't sleep all night."

The embassy offered to accompany Abula and her four children back to their hotel, but they "refused to leave the embassy in a kind of sit-in", a Belgian ministry spokesman told AFP.

In an interview published Tuesday, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told Le Soir newspaper that the diplomatic police "asked the family to leave the premises" and the situation was explained to the father the next day.

An embassy is not intended to "lodge people" applying for visas, he said.

In the end, Chinese police "escorted them away", the Belgian ministry spokesman told AFP.

A few days later, Abula and her children were taken away by Xinjiang police, her husband said, and he has not heard from her since.

Reynders told the Belga news agency on Monday that the diplomat would go to the address given by the father to check if "everything is going well" with them.

"My only concern here is that we can reunite the family," he told Belga.

On Monday the foreign ministry did not have confirmation that they were at home.

-'Concentration camp'-

The case highlights the barriers Uighurs face in attempting to leave China.

According to human rights groups, authorities in Xinjiang have confiscated passports of Uighurs, making it difficult for them to join their relatives overseas.

Abula and her children too have struggled to obtain passports -- an issue that Belgium's ambassador will take up with China's director of consular affairs, Reynders told Belga.

Abula applied for a passport in 2017, but never received one, according to receipts seen by AFP.

Tursun believes that the family "took a risk" by travelling outside Xinjiang in the first place.

"If my family then returns to (Xinjiang's capital) Urumqi, it's very likely that they will be sent to a concentration camp," he wrote in March in an email to a non-profit helping the family with their visa application.

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