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A mural in Xinjiang reads "Stability is a blessing, Instability is a calamity," Yarkand, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China on September 20, 2012.  © 2012 Getty Images
(New York) – The Chinese government should release to their families children held in orphanages in Xinjiang because their parents have been arbitrarily detained, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Financial Times and the Associated Press have reported on the removal of children of detained Turkic Muslims from their extended families and placed in state institutions. Human Rights Watch’s September 2018 report on mass detentions in Xinjiang detailed one such case. One million Turkic Muslims are credibly estimated to be detained in unlawful political education camps in Xinjiang, along with an unknown number arbitrarily held in detention centers and prisons, under China’s abusive “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism.”

“China’s authorities are cruelly putting the children of some of Xinjiang’s political detainees in state institutions,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “This is part of a perverse government program to take Turkic Muslim children from their extended families in the name of children’s material well-being.”

In November 2016, Xinjiang’s Chinese Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo ordered local officials to place all orphans from Xinjiang into institutions by 2020 as part of a range of development initiatives for the region. The order involves “concentrating” (集中收养) orphans previously cared for in “a scattered manner” – including by their extended families – and placing them in institutions to “improve their living standards.”

The regional policy broadly defines orphans as “children who have lost their parents or whose parents cannot be found;” in some regions this includes those whose one or both parents are detained or imprisoned.

Under Xinjiang’s regional implementation policy, issued in January 2017, local officials are encouraged to “channel” children it considers orphans into state orphanages, including by filling all empty beds in existing orphanages and upgrading and building new facilities. Some of these new facilities appear designed to house 100 or more children, according to media accounts. The government’s goal is to move from 24 percent institutionalization rate of “orphans” in Xinjiang to 100 percent between 2017 and 2020.

While the regional policy generally describes the targets of the policy as those who “wish to be institutionalized,” it otherwise gives no details concerning consent. It is unclear whether it is the children’s, the parents,’ or the extended families’ wishes that would be taken into consideration; which government agency would make the decision; and whether there are procedures for determining such consent or to challenge such determination.

A local government report in September 2017 states that children can stay with guardians who are unwilling to send them to orphanages. However, other localities have received hard quotas to be filled. In Jimsar County, officials were required to send 30 orphans to institutions by October 2017. In Xinyuan County, the authorities ordered officials to institutionalize 60 orphans by November 2017 or suffer demerits. In Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, a policy report acknowledges the difficulties in meeting those demands: “The orphans’ guardians are relatives such as grandparents…the guardians do not wish to give the children to the institutions. The guardians and the children are unwilling to be separated long-term, and do not trust that the orphanages to be a safe place for the children.”

Article 4 of China’s Adoption Law defines orphans as “those under 14 who have lost their parents, those whose parents cannot be found, and those whose parents have special difficulties and are unable to raise their children.” While article 43 of China’s Law on the Protection of Minors says that orphanages established by the Ministry of Civil Affairs have the responsibility to care for orphans, Chinese law does not empower government authorities to remove children from their relatives to place them in state care, nor any legal procedures to do so.

Reports of children being placed in orphanages against their families’ wishes are particularly alarming given the government’s sustained assault on the cultural identity of Turkic Muslim minority communities in Xinjiang, as Human Rights Watch and others have documented. In schools, authorities have long prohibited children from learning religion and have progressively marginalized the use of ethnic languages while promoting the use of Mandarin as the medium of instructions. All Muslim religious practice has been curtailed.

The preamble to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Chinese government has ratified, recognizes the family as the natural environment for the growth and well-being of children. The convention obligates governments to ensure that a “child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.” Such a determination may be necessary in a particular case, such as involving parental abuse or neglect.

Even when alternative care arrangements are necessary, care by close family members should be given priority. Removing a child from the family’s care is normally a measure of last resort and should, whenever possible, be temporary and for the shortest possible duration. Officials need to ensure that a child who is capable of forming their own views has the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting them. The child’s views should be given due consideration in accordance with their age and maturity.

All decisions concerning alternative care should take full account of the desirability, in principle, of maintaining the child as close as possible to their habitual place of residence, to facilitate contact and potential reintegration with the child’s family, and to minimize disruption of the child’s educational, cultural, and social life.

As information has emerged in recent months about mass, systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang, United Nations bodies, governments, and others have publicly expressed concern about China’s policies. The United States has been considering imposing sanctions on various Xinjiang officials and entities. Germany and Sweden have temporarily suspended deportations of ethnic Uighurs to China. But governments should take stronger steps, notably by creating an international coalition to gather evidence of serious abuses and press for accountability.

“By unnecessarily sending children in Xinjiang to state institutions, officials are adding to the trauma of China’s ‘Strike Hard’ Campaign,” Richardson said. “Governments that weren’t previously outraged by Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang should press China to change course immediately and limit the long-term harm of these policies.”

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