Foreign Policy: The United States Should Give Fleeing Uighurs a Home

This op-ed was originally published in Foreign Policy.

In 2017, Tahir Hamut, a Muslim Uighur, made the difficult decision to flee with his family from his homeland of Xinjiang, China. He’d heard of Uighur friends, colleagues, and even distant relatives disappearing into what we now know are political “reeducation” camps, where China has detained up to 3 million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. In August of that year, Hamut, a well-known Uighur poet and film director, used a travel visa to visit the United States. Just four months later, spurred by reports of the worsening conditions in Xinjiang, he filed for asylum.

Hamut and his family have been waiting three years for the U.S. government to resolve their asylum claim. But he doesn’t know how much longer they’ll have to wait—he knows many other Uighurs in the United States who have waited six years or more. The fear of being returned to Xinjiang if their case is not approved has taken a psychological toll on his family, and these days, Hamut can’t help but wonder if there is a better way.

Washington has already taken steps to help Uighurs facing persecution, but it must do more. In his last day on the job, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo determined that China committed “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” against Uighurs. And in a moment of bipartisan consensus, his successor, Antony Blinken, has agreed with Pompeo’s designation. Washington must build on this momentum and support Uighur refugees. One way of doing this would be to name Uighurs a priority group for resettlement in the United States as soon as possible.

As Hamut’s case sits pending, the world has become aware of the scale of the human rights atrocities that people like him face. Since the mid-2010s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has detained Muslim Uighurs in political reeducation camps, which it claims are schools and vocational training centers that deradicalize potential extremists and terrorists. But it’s clear that the CCP is targeting Uighurs on religious and ethnic grounds. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has compelled Uighur people to renounce Islam, and the international community has seen report after report of the CCP destroying mosques, Uighur men in shackles boarding trains, and the forced sterilization of Uighur women. 

Pompeo’s genocide designation, which has energized U.S. support of Uighurs, was itself part of a chain of action to address Beijing’s treatment of the Muslim minority. It followed the passage of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act in Congress in mid-2020, which allowed for more liberal use of sanctions against members of the CCP responsible for committing human rights violations against Uighurs. That act led to Washington’s decision to sanction Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and other CCP officials responsible for overseeing the surveillance state that made the massive collectivization of Uighurs in Xinjiang possible. 

Now, the most tangible thing the U.S. government can do to support Uighurs is to fully use its refugee admissions program, which has long been a practical way to alleviate suffering for those in crisis, by making Uighurs a priority group for resettlement in the United States.

The most tangible thing the U.S. government can do to support Uighurs is to fully use its refugee admissions program.In particular, the United States should grant Uighurs “Priority 2” or “P-2” status in its refugee program by naming them a group “of special humanitarian concern.” P-2 status enables candidates to bypass referral from other entities like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an embassy, or a nongovernmental organization, and to apply directly to U.S. authorities for resettlement, whether they’re currently inside or outside their country of origin.

Washington has a track record of success with P-2. This special status has been extended to help, for example, refugees from Myanmar in Thailand, religious minorities in the Middle East, and individuals who helped the U.S. government in Iraq. Other groups whom Washington is currently considering for P-2 status include survivors of Islamic State genocide in Syria and Iraq and citizens of Hong Kong.

The special status could provide an important lifeline for those Uighurs who have already fled China yet continue to face persecution. For instance, in Thailand, Uighurs face extrajudicial imprisonment. In Turkey, since the government is under significant pressure from Beijing, it continues to deport Uighurs back to China—even those to whom it has already granted asylum. The good news is that a bill offering the Uighurs P-2 status could be introduced later this month.

For Uighurs whose cases are currently languishing in the U.S. asylum system, there is no shortage of financial and emotional hardship. Hamut’s daughter is about to graduate high school. Since her status as an asylee is unresolved, her family will have to pay high international tuition rates for her to attend college, which may prevent her from pursuing higher education. Both Hamut and his daughter said they live in constant fear that their case will be rejected and that they will be sent back to Xinjiang, where they would almost certainly face imprisonment.

Because they are already in the United States, P-2 status will not resolve these challenges for Hamut and his family. But it will speed up the vetting and resettlement of other Uighurs from the countries they’ve fled to and ensure that these new arrivals do not face similar hardships. For cases like Hamut’s, Washington should work to ensure that pending asylum cases are resolved in a timely and thorough manner.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government should press other countries to offer safe haven to Uighurs. The United States should prioritize diplomacy with key countries hosting Uighurs, including Turkey, Malaysia, Thailand, and Kazakhstan. These countries all face significant pressure from China to deport Uighurs back to Xinjiang. Washington can send a clear message of support by stepping up and offering P-2 status to Uighurs, which will hopefully strengthen those countries’ willingness to accept Uighur refugees within their own borders.

In these efforts, Washington must work with its international allies and partners. Europe, Australia, and Canada care about the Uighur crisis, too, and it’s important that they agree with the United States on pathways to safety. This is an opportunity, as a new administration begins, for the United States not only to support an oppressed group of people, but also to demonstrate strong global leadership and prove its commitment to human rights.

Cover Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images