Fears about the conditions inside indoctrination camps are even greater, and information even more sparse. No reports have emerged of conditions in the facilities since the outbreak began. But former detainees have previously described poor food and sanitation and little help for those who fell ill.
Internal Chinese documents leaked to The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have listed officials’ warnings about the dangers of infectious diseases in the indoctrination program.
Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese-born ethnic Kazakh woman who was forced to work as a Chinese language teacher in a camp for a few months until early 2018, said she was worried that the government would do little to prevent an outbreak in the camps.
“According to my personal experience in the concentration camp, they never helped anyone or provided any medical support for any kind of disease or health condition,” said Ms. Sauytbay, who fled to Kazakhstan two years ago, in a phone interview this month. “If the coronavirus spread inside the camps, they would not help, they would not provide any medical support.”
Now the region is being jolted back to work. Labor transfer programs, in which large numbers of Uighurs and other predominately Muslim minorities are sent to work in other parts of Xinjiang and the rest of China, have resumed in recent weeks. The programs have drawn scrutiny for harsh controls and coercive recruiting methods that experts say amount to forced labor.
By March 20, more than 20,000 people from poor, predominantly Uighur counties in southern Xinjiang were sent to work in cities including Hotan, Kashgar and Urumqi, the regional capital. The goal, according to the state-run Xinjiang Daily, was to transfer 50,000 people by the end of March.
In order to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus, the newspaper said, the workers had to be closely shepherded from point to point. When one group of workers set off, the newspaper said, they were only allowed to “go out, get in the train, then enter the factory door.”