Mother pleads for help to end Uighurs’ ‘nightmare’

Zulfia Erk with her children Kutyar, 8, left, and Umit, 5, at their home in Casula, Sydney. Picture: James Croucher
Zulfia Erk with her children Kutyar, 8, left, and Umit, 5, at their home in Casula, Sydney. Picture: James Croucher

Sydney community services worker and mother of three Zulfia Erk — who has five brothers locked up in detention camps in northwest China — broke down in tears as she told her story for the first time.


“It is not really easy for me to share this story because obviously the rest of the family will be affected,” she told The Australian. “(My brother’s) wife or kids, for example, I have no idea if they are going well or not; it’s hard to get any information from them.

“Many people here, Uighurs, think if we keep silent that helps, but actually it’s not, it’s not helping us. It’s allowing (China) to keep doing it — and my brothers have ended up in a camp.”


A UN human rights panel said this month it had received many credible reports that as many as one million ethnic Uighurs in China could be detained and that the region of Xinjiang in northwest China now resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy”.

The Australian can reveal that the federal government has privately acknowledged that ethnically Uighur Chinese citizens are being locked up arbitrarily and has pledged to work with the Uighur community to investigate the situation in Xinjiang.

“The government is aware of Uighurs who have disappeared into official custody in recent years, and reports by overseas Uighurs of police harassment of their China-based families, including detentions,” the Department of Foreign Affairs’ East Asia branch assistant secretary Elly Lawson wrote in a letter to South Australian Labor MP Tony Zappia.

“We will continue to work with the Uighur Australian community to develop our understanding of the situation, and problems they or their families face in China.”

Mr Zappia has a number of ethnically Uighur Australians in his electorate and has spoken up about the issue in federal parliament.

Turnbull government ministers have avoided sharp public criticisms of China over the issue.

Asked whether Australia accepted the UN’s judgment, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop simply said: “The Australian government shares concerns expressed by the international community on the situation in Xinjiang.”

Ms Erk said politicians were worried about damaging the country’s relationship with China. “I know our story isn’t nice to hear; it’s very terrifying and it’s not really beneficial (to Australia). The reason is China is too powerful; another reason is money to business (is at risk) so they don’t want to get involved (in this issue).”

Ms Erk said it was possible at least half of her relatives were now detained in Chinese government re-education camps and added that her sixth brother, who lives with his wife in Uzbekistan, has been unable to get Uzbek citizenship and is under pressure to return to China, where he could be detained.

Ms Erk has nightmares every night thinking of her family.

“I feel helpless and hopeless. We are seeking a peaceful life but our life is not in peace, mentally we are not in peace. All night I have to fight with my nightmares and then I know the world doesn’t care.”

Ms Bishop said in a letter to Mr Zappia the government had urged Beijing to “exercise restraint”.

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