17 Australian residents detained in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region

Reports say 15 residents and two on spousal visas are being held by authorities

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Uighur protestors in Turkish capital Istanbul

Uighur protestors in Turkish capital Istanbul (By Associated Press)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Reports suggest 17 Australian residents are being detained by Chinese authorities in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

U.K. newspaper The Guardian published a report Sunday revealing 15 permanent residents and two living in the country on spousal visas are detained in either Chinese prisons, internment camps or on house arrest. Advocate for Uighurs in Australia Nurgul Sawut said the secretive nature of the Chinese government’s doings makes it difficult to confirm the exact nature of the detentions.

The individuals were reportedly arrested while on trips to visit relatives in the region. China tends to view Uighurs living abroad as a threat and regularly punishes people for maintaining contact with expatriated family members.

Authorities are particularly fearful of those choosing to live in countries with ethno-cultural connections, such as Turkey, where officials have openly criticized Beijing’s killing of Xinjiang citizens for years. Xinjiang escapees have been blackmailed to spy and report information on Turkey’s Uighur community.

Reports reveal, however, that people working for the Chinese government have also been regularly infiltrating the lives of those living in countries like Australia. A Sydney-based Uighur business owner told The Guardian last year a man came to her workplace and aggressively questioned her on her political stance and the ethnicity of her employees.

Sawut has called Australia to act against China. She told Al Jazeera that Uighur detentions in the country also impact their family members abroad: "There are 17 families whose lives are destroyed. They can't continue with their work. Their mental health is deteriorating."

Canberra is yet to comment on the matter.

Outrage ensued over the weekend after reports surfaced claiming Uighur musician Abdurehim Heyit had died in detention, with Turkey calling the situation "a great cause of shame for humanity.” The Chinese government then released a video “confirming” Heyit is still alive, condemning Turkey as having “made a very bad mistake which misquote irresponsible.”

The highly secretive nature of Beijing’s operations in Xinjiang make it impossible to know the true extent of the mass internment program, but figures report the total number of people incarcerated since 2017 could range between one and two million.