An 18-month-old Australian boy is trapped in China, and his father in Sydney fears he will be taken away from his mother and sent to a state-run orphanage unless he can find a way to get him out of the country.
The baby boy, whose case is being reported for the first time here, was recently granted Australian citizenship. He is the youngest Australian thought to be caught up in China’s brutal campaign of repression targeting Uighur Muslims in the country’s west, and is among just a handful of such cases that are publicly known.
The boy’s mother, a Uighur who holds Chinese citizenship, was detained by Chinese authorities shortly after she gave birth in August 2017, and was only released a few days later because she was breastfeeding.
She now faces being jailed or interned in one of the many sprawling “political education” camps in China’s far west region of Xinjiang, where upward of 1 million Uighur Muslims are being held without charge, subject to indoctrination and abuse.
Her husband, a 28-year-old Uighur Australian who is the boy’s father, is fighting a desperate battle with Australian and Chinese authorities to be reunited with his wife — who does not have Australian citizenship — and the son he has never met. Based on what Chinese authorities have told his wife, he believes that if he does not bring his son to Australia soon, the boy could be dispatched to a state-run orphanage like many other children of Uighur migrants and detainees.
The man agreed to be identified by his initial, S. BuzzFeed News is withholding S.’s name and the names of his family members at his request because he fears naming them could endanger their security. His story has been corroborated using both public and private Australian immigration and citizenship records, correspondence, and family photographs.
“For more than a year now I haven’t given up. My hope is not dead yet,” he told BuzzFeed News by phone from Sydney. “Until I see my wife and son I will not give up.”
In S.’s eyes, his quest to bring his wife and son to safety in Australia has been a battle fought on two fronts — one in Xinjiang’s police state, which is so repressive to Muslim minorities that it is often likened to an open-air prison, and the other through the labyrinth of Australia’s immigration bureaucracy.
Asked several questions about the case, a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said, “DFAT consular officials are providing consular assistance to an Australian man whose family are in China. Owing to our privacy obligations we will not provide further comment.”
S. is among thousands of Uighur migrants whose families have been separated by the Chinese government’s campaign, which has made it nearly impossible for Uighurs in the country to communicate with family abroad. The plight of the Uighur community in Australia has made headlines there amid an escalating crisis.
“There are no hard and fast rules about what steps the government is obligated to take, it’s very much contextual,” said Michael Bradley, S.’s attorney in Australia. “It’s hard to preempt how it’s going to play out practically. But in our view, what the government can’t do is ignore the problem.”
S. and his wife, who’s 26, were childhood sweethearts. They met in middle school, where he was two years her senior. S.’s father was an academic who had worked abroad; he predicted that the already repressive environment in Xinjiang would get worse and sent S. to high school in Australia in 2009. S. sought asylum in Australia and eventually got citizenship there. But he kept in touch with his sweetheart for years through texts and phone calls. “I felt like she was the real one for me,” he said.
They got married in a religious ceremony in August 2016 in Xinjiang. On their honeymoon, they traveled to the United States to see family, and then to Turkey, where S.’s wife discovered she was pregnant. They were overjoyed.
At that time, China’s campaign to intern hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in so-called political education centers had not begun in earnest, and little was known about the government’s plans, even to people who lived in the sprawling Xinjiang region. S. and his wife were from Urumqi, the region’s capital. The city has historically been under much less pressure than places in the region’s south, where fewer Han Chinese — China’s most populous ethnic group — and more Uighurs tend to live.
In April 2017, S.’s wife decided to return home from Turkey to Urumqi for what she expected would be just a few weeks, to be close to her mother as she battled morning sickness and pregnancy cravings, while S. returned to Australia. It was the last time they saw each other.
Two weeks later, police officers knocked at the door of her parents’ apartment and collected everyone’s passports, as they did for Uighurs across the region. “We never thought it would be this bad,” S. said. “She told me, ‘Don’t worry, they’ll give it back before the baby is born.’”
“But I knew something was wrong,” he said. “I felt like something was going to happen. But by then it was already too late.”
There are many reports of Uighurs being sent to internment camps after having visited Muslim countries including Turkey. S. worried the same would become of his wife. S., who gave up his Chinese citizenship, applied for a tourist visa to China, but the Chinese consulate declined his application without giving a reason. “I wasn’t there when my baby was born,” he said. “That was the hardest part.”
Sure enough, soon after S.’s wife gave birth, she was detained by police and was forced to leave her baby with her parents. She was released within a few days, according to S.’s application for their son’s citizenship, because she was breastfeeding at the time. But police told her she would likely be arrested again after she was done breastfeeding because she had traveled to Turkey, according to S. Her family began bribing local police to protect her, but it was expensive, and S. said they couldn’t keep doing it for much longer.
According to the S.’s statement to the Australia’s Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which oversaw S.’s citizenship appeal for his son, S.’s wife was informed on her release from detention “that once the child was one-year-old, she would be returned to detention and most likely the son will be put in a holding camp for children, given a Han Chinese name and adopted out to a Han Chinese family.”
There are widespread reports of Uighurs in Xinjiang facing detention for making phone calls or sending messages to friends and family overseas. S.’s wife believed it was too dangerous to communicate with her husband directly because of regular cellphone checks by the police, so the couple adopted a strategy. The popular Chinese messaging app WeChat has a function called “moments,” which is similar to Facebook’s News Feed. She posted photos and short updates there to show she was alive and free. S. would tap a heart icon under the posts to acknowledge he had seen them, and she would immediately delete them.
S. described his wife as sweet-natured, with little knowledge of the world outside Xinjiang. But after her detention, she posted that she was plagued by nightmares, unable to sleep. He started to wonder if his wife might have been spared if he had never come into her life, never taken her to Turkey.
The campaign in Xinjiang, which China says is necessary to counter terrorism and maintain domestic security, has been subject to widespread international condemnation and represents what is perhaps the most sweeping human rights crackdown in China since the Cultural Revolution — one that critics say aims to wipe out the language and culture of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minority groups.
Australia’s government has faced criticism from Uighur rights groups as well as opposition politicians for being too soft on China at a time when relations between the two countries have deteriorated and the worsening situation in Xinjiang has led Western governments including the United States to call for accountability. Australia has called on China to end the campaign of mass detention in Xinjiang and to release detainees, and DFAT has said it’s conveyed its concerns over relatives of Uighur Australians to the Chinese government on many occasions.
At least 17 Uighurs who have permanent resident status in Australia are thought to be in internment camps, under house arrest or in prison in China. Australia acknowledged in October that three Australian nationals had been held in the internment camps, but said they had been released at some point over the previous year. DFAT told the Guardian that it was not aware of any other Australians detained in Xinjiang’s camps, the paper reported on Feb. 10.
Though hundreds of Uighur Australians have family who they believe are being held in internment camps in China, Australia’s government has little power to assist them because they are not citizens. Australia has actually scaled back its willingness to assist permanent residents abroad — its most recent consular strategy states that it will no longer assist permanent residents at all, and there is no legal obligation for the country’s government to do so.
Early last year, S. started reaching out to authorities in Australia in hopes that they could help his family. But he found that his government could do little to help. Children of Australian parents are entitled to automatic Australian citizenship even if they are born abroad — but Chinese authorities had refused to put S.’s name on his child’s birth certificate, he said, which meant he would have to prove the child was his before citizenship could be granted.
Like many Uighur migrants, S. believed that because Australia is a democracy, it would be straightforward for him to ask his government for help. He spent weeks reaching out to his own political representative and others in the government and received no response. Through an Australian activist contact, S. finally reached Greens Senator Nick McKim, the party’s spokesperson for immigration and justice, who raised the issue with DFAT.
“I have no doubt [S.’s] situation continues to be distressing for him and his family,” then–Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop wrote in a letter to McKim dated Aug. 13, 2018, and shared with BuzzFeed News by his office. But, she wrote, “DFAT is unable to offer consular assistance to [S.’s wife and son] as they are not Australian citizens. Such an approach would be rejected by the Chinese government.”
In the letter, Bishop suggested S. first obtain citizenship for his son.
S. sought a DNA sample for his child. His wife took their son to get the sample in Urumqi, where they lived, and the sample proved to be more than a 99.99% match with S.’s own sample. But Australia’s Department of Home Affairs initially rejected the application for his son’s citizenship, saying the DNA test had to be done at certain recognized laboratories and under proper supervision, ideally in Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, S. said.
The requirement seemed ridiculous to S. Traveling to these cities, which are on the other side of the country from Urumqi, would be impossible for Uighurs like S.’s wife, whose identification documents had been confiscated by the police. In Xinjiang, public transportation and roadside checkpoints require state-issued ID, making it tough to travel even from city to city without these documents.
S. was becoming more and more anxious. It had been months since he had even had a conversation with his wife. He said he felt like she was slipping away from him, as though her personality were changing. “After they took her to jail, she was like a different person,” he said. He longed to hear the voice of his baby, who he watched grow in photographs she posted and quickly deleted, wishing he could hear his voice.
S. appealed the decision from the Department of Home Affairs at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, collecting evidence of his relationship with his family like wedding photos and ultrasound images. The tribunal found in favor of S., noting it seemed highly unlikely that the DNA test could have been fabricated.
“It seems to the Tribunal to be a very long bow to draw to suggest that it is a concoction or contrivance to advance the cause of this application,” the record of the appeal says. For S., it was frustrating — the time and money he had spent proving his relationship to his son, all while his wife’s freedom was at risk, seemed absurd.
“The hearing took place last August and we got the decision just before Christmas, which was agonizing for [S.],” said Bradley, S.’s lawyer in Australia.
Finally, S.’s son was formally granted citizenship on Feb. 4, according to a certificate seen by BuzzFeed News. The wait had been unbearable — the stress so bad that S. quit his job as a truck driver. He now drives for Uber, working nights.
“I am relieved and very happy that citizenship was finally granted,” McKim told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “It took the Australian government far too long to become involved and do the right thing. It is now essential that the whole family be reunited in Australia, and that the government provide all necessary assistance to make this happen as soon as possible.”
But the road ahead for S.’s son remains long and difficult. For one thing, because S.’s wife is not an Australian citizen, she’s not entitled to consular assistance, and it’s unclear how their son can travel without his mother. Bradley noted S.’s son is entitled to an Australian passport and the protection of the government, but that many logistical obstacles remain.
“At the end of the day, other than raise these issues with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it’s pretty hard to do anything,” said James Leibold, an associate professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “You can’t just go in there and get them.”
S. said he had lost faith in the Australian government over the past year.
“I’m an Australian. I shouldn’t have had to go to court for my own son’s citizenship application,” he said. “I’m so angry and disappointed. What China’s government is doing to us is more than enough. There’s an Aussie baby who’s stuck in China who hasn’t seen his father yet.”
An officer from DFAT called him on Tuesday morning, he said, saying the department would work to assist his family. The call came shortly after S.’s lawyer as well as BuzzFeed News had reached out to the department about the case. S. said he was afraid diplomats calling his wife could put her at risk, but there’s no alternative. In any case, he said, it doesn’t matter to him that his wife is not an Australian national.
“When you love someone, you can’t just give up,” S. said. “I’m not going to give up on her. I told them I don’t need my son without my wife, or my wife without my son. You can’t separate a child from his mother.”
By Megha Rajagopalan