ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Two more ethnic Kazakhs from China’s northwestern Xinjiang region who illegally crossed the border have obtained temporary refugee status in Kazakhstan.
Abdulla Baqbergen, a lawyer for Qaisha Aqan and Baghashar Malikuly, told RFE/RL on October 30 that his clients received the rare designation of refugee status for one year on October 29 and October 28, respectively.
In December 2019, 44-year-old Aqan was handed a suspended six-month prison sentence for illegal border-crossing after she testified at her trial that she had to cross illegally into Kazakhstan in May 2018 because local authorities in Xinjiang threatened to place her in an internment camp for indigenous ethnic groups there.
The 37-year-old Malikuly was under investigation for several months last year over illegally crossing the border in 2017.
In December, all charges against him were dropped but his status remained unclear.
Malikuly told RFE/RL that he had to enter Kazakhstan illegally in 2017 after Chinese authorities confiscated his Kazakh permanent-residence permit. According to Malikuly, the documents were confiscated when he traveled to Xinjiang in 2015 to visit his parents.
The rulings for Aqan and Malikuly come less than two weeks after two other ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang, Murager Alimuly and Qaster Musakhanuly, received one-year refugee status in Kazakhstan.
In January, a court in the far eastern town of Zaisan near the Chinese border handed one-year prison sentences to the two men for illegally entering the country in 2019, but allowed them to stay in Kazakhstan, saying that they might face persecution back in Xinjiang.
The court also ruled that each day the two men spent in pretrial detention since October 2019 counted as two days in prison, making them eligible for release in less than six months. They were both released in May and have since been trying to obtain refugee status in Kazakhstan.
The 26-year-old Alimuly testified at a hearing that he had been detained in Xinjiang for questioning and faced incarceration at a Chinese “reeducation camp.”
Musakhanuly, 31, said he previously had spent five years in such a camp in Xinjiang. In September 2019, he said, he was told by Chinese authorities that he would be sent back to one of the camps.
The United Nations has estimated that 1 million Uyghurs and members of other mostly Muslim indigenous ethnic groups in Xinjiang were being held in “counterextremism centers,” while millions more had been forced into reeducation camps.
China denies that the facilities are internment camps.
Those conditions have prompted many ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang in recent years to cross the border illegally in fear of staying in China.
Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans. Han, China’s largest ethnicity, are the second-largest community in Xinjiang.