Refugees, Asylum-Seekers Speak of Persecution in China

Bugra Arkin owns a Uyghur restaurant in Los Angeles. He studied public policy in the United States and is an ethnic Uyghur Muslim from Xinjiang Province, China, where more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims, including his father, a publisher, have been held in re-education camps. The United States and human rights groups call China’s suppression of Uyghurs and their culture a genocide.

“In 2018, my father and my uncle, my cousins, some of my friends, they disappeared. And then I heard they were taken to the concentration camp,” Arkin says.

But his family could get no information, and no Chinese lawyer would help.

Now in Los Angeles, Arkin was granted asylum in 2018. His wife, also a Uyghur, is a U.S.-trained lawyer who has joined the U.S. Air Force. Yet the couple received two frightening phone calls from a Chinese-speaking caller earlier this year.

“She was threatening me, even death-threatening my 2-year-old daughter,” Arkin said. “She said, ‘we are closely watching you; we will kill you. You are going to die.’”

He was told to stay silent but says he will not.

“Even this can give me strength to speak up for my father and my Uyghur people,” Arkin said.

Another asylum applicant, Jie Lijian, has also received threatening phone calls saying China is watching him and insisting he keep quiet.

In China, he was incarcerated repeatedly, burned with cigarettes and suffered beatings that cost him several teeth. All vivid memories, says this political activist from Shandong Province. He recalls two forced stays in psychiatric hospitals and torture in a police facility in 2009.

“When we arrived in a compound, they pushed my head into a big water tank,” said Jie. “I think they’ve been through this kind of training. They won’t let you die but won’t let you feel good. They make you suffer, to where you feel like you’re suffocating on the brink of death.”

Between 2015 and 2018, Jie took part in commemorations of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre in China. Again, he was detained and tortured after reentering the mainland.

“The Chinese government would torment its citizens using any method,” said Jie. “If you are killed, then you are killed. If you are disabled, then you are disabled. If you accuse them of wrongdoing, they will continue to arrest you, and what’s waiting for you is prison (or) is a mental hospital.”

China denies mistreating those in custody, but human rights groups have documented the torture of criminal suspects and activists and mass incarceration of ethnic Uyghurs.

Both men worry about the fate of their families in China, but say they feel compelled by their plights to speak out.

“She was threatening me, even death-threatening my 2-year-old daughter. She said, ‘we are closely watching you; we will kill you. You are going to die.’”

Bugra Arkin, Uyghur asylum recipient


WRITER: Mike O’SullivanCONTRIBUTOR: Elizabeth LeeVIDEOGRAPHER: Mike O’Sullivan, Roy Kim Post-production coordinator: Marcus Harton

About this series

From 2010-2020, U.N. Refugee Agency reported a consistent increase in the number of asylum-seekers from China totaling more than 630,000 people. Separately, the number of asylum-seekers from Hong Kong jumped dramatically, from 22 in 2018 to a record 487 people in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic. Asylum-seekers are just one part of the China exodus story, as people from China and Hong Kong emigrate in other ways, as well. This project examines why people left and where they have resettled.