Four ethnic Kazakhs convicted of illegally crossing the border from China have been granted temporary refugee status by Kazakhstan, marking an apparent about-turn in its position on Beijing’s campaign of anti-Islamic repression in Xinjiang.
There may be more to the decisions than meets the eye, however.
Kaisha Akhan became the latest person to be granted refugee status on October 30. Malik Bashagar was accorded the same treatment by the Interior Ministry’s migration department on October 29.
Kaster Musakhan and Murager Alimuly received their asylum documents on October 16, almost exactly one year after the pair were jailed for unlawfully filtering across the border.
The quartet’s right of asylum is valid for only one year, but they have the option of applying for extensions.
This is uncharted territory for Kazakhstan, which has until now been reluctant to provoke Beijing’s ire by providing a haven to people fleeing Xinjiang.
Musakhan and Alimuly had become something of a cause célèbre for sections of the opposition after they issued an emotional video appeal for protection to the government in the days after they surfaced in Kazakhstan.
Prospects had initially looked grim for the pair. A top national security official said in an interview that Musakhan and Alimuly had “no chance” of remaining in Kazakhstan and that they would be returned to China in accordance with the law, their claims of persecution notwithstanding.
That danger has been lifted for the time being.
This is a marked change of policy by Kazakhstan’s authorities since the saga of Sayragul Sauytbay. She was another ethnic Kazakh who managed to slip out of Xinjiang in April 2018. After a convoluted series of legal tribulations, she was denied asylum by Kazakhstan, but was granted permission to leave for Sweden, which did offer her a haven. The relocation had clearly happened as a result of the growing discomfort felt by Kazakh authorities over Sauytbay’s emergent role as a martyr for the Xinjiang cause.
Sauytbay, a former Chinese communist party member, in 2018 became the first person to testify in an open court about the existence of vast internment camps in Xinjiang designed to contain hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Turkic minorities. The case helped awaken interest in Kazakhstan and beyond about the plight of ethnic Kazakhs in a Chinese region more commonly associated with longer-suffering Uyghurs.
The breakthroughs achieved by Alimuly, Musakhan, Bashagar and Akhan have been welcomed by rights activists.
Denis Dzhivaga, deputy director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, told Eurasianet that this development implies that migration commissions, where multiple government agencies are represented, accepted the reliability of accounts about repression by Chinese authorities.
This may be as much as the quartet can hope for, though.
Dzhivaga warned that the result did not automatically mean they would be able to successfully apply for Kazakh citizenship, however.
Indeed, suspicions are strong that even this face-saving concession was coordinated with Beijing, which activists say has redoubled its efforts to ensure the avoidance of any more border escapes in future.
Serikjan Bilash, a leading light in the Almaty-based Atajurt advocacy group, claimed to Eurasianet that he and his colleagues have seen copies of notices posted by local authorities in Xinjiang promising generous financial rewards for anyone offering information on Kazakhs plotting flight.
“This is a motivation not only to ethnic Kazakhs living there, but also to representatives of our border service,” Bilash said.
Sauytbay’s emergence as a celebrity refugee in the West, meanwhile, is doing neither Kazakhstan nor China any favors.
In March, Sauytbay collected an International Women of Courage award from the State Department in the U.S. capital, Washington.
In July, she testified on Xinjiang rights abuses for a hearing in the Canadian parliament. A subcommittee in that legislature would go on to proclaim China’s policies in Xinjiang as an exercise in genocide.
Sauytbay has also written a book: “The Chief Witness: Escape from China's Modern-Day Concentration Camps.” The book is available in German at the moment, but several translations are expected by next year.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.