Members of Parliament have unanimously called on Ottawa to start a refugee program to resettle 10,000 Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China.
“This is an important moment today where we are standing together as one,” Liberal MP Sameer Zuberi told reporters on Parliament Hill.
“We have hard work to do ahead of us. We will do this work.”
The Montreal MP proposed a motion last June calling on the government to develop a plan within 100 days to resettle 10,000 Uyghur people and other Muslims of Turkic origin to Canada.
That gives Ottawa until May 12 to come up with the outline of a program that the motion says should start in 2024 and meet its target within two years.
The idea is to resettle people who are living in countries such as Turkey rather than bringing them directly from China, with Zuberi arguing that there is no safe way to do the latter.
MPs passed the motion unanimously Wednesday in the Commons. It earned 322 votes, including that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
After passing the motion, MPs from different parties shook hands and hugged. Zuberi pumped his fist in the air as dozens of people wearing traditional Uyghur clothing clapped, with some cheering, “Thank you, Canada” from the public galleries.
While private members’ motions are non-binding, Zuberi took the support of Trudeau’s cabinet as a sign his government will follow through.
“This is a promise to the Canadian people, to the international community, that we will do this,” he told reporters, flanked by Uyghur advocates.
“I will push for people to be saved without any delay.”
Mehmet Tohti, head of the Ottawa-based Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, said the Uyghur diaspora in Canada is ready to help officials craft a plan and put it into action.
He alleged that Chinese officials phoned him on Jan. 16 from his cousin’s hospital room in China, as an intimidation tactic ahead of Wednesday’s vote.
Tohti said his two sisters died in concentration camps in China, and his three brothers have disappeared.
“Doing advocacy against China is not easy, and many of our community members in Canada, Uyghur-Canadians, they sacrifice their family members just to speak up,” he told reporters.
“For that reason, we value this motion and we value the will of the Canadian Parliament.”
The UN Human Rights Office reported last August that China is committing “grave human rights violations” against Uyghur people in the Xinjiang region, and that some who fled to other countries have been “forcibly returned.”
Beijing has rejected such reports, characterizing them as attempts to smear a rising China. But the country has severely restricted media reporting and human-rights analysis in Xinjiang.
China insists it is implementing “re-education” camps to weed out Islamic radicalization after deadly attacks, but its officials stand accused of perpetrating sexual violence and forced labour.
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Thousands of Uyghurs have sought refuge in countries such as Turkey, where they face a risk of being sent back to China.
A report by the Wilson Center think tank in Washington found that between 1997 and 2022, some 1,574 Uyghurs in countries abroad had been detained or sent back to China, where most were imprisoned or tortured.
The Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project said that it would monitor Canada’s progress, and that Wednesday’s vote sets an example for other democracies.
The Commons had passed a motion in February 2021 that recognized China’s treatment of the Uyghur people as a genocide, though Trudeau’s cabinet abstained from the vote, saying more international investigations were needed.
The government continued that line of argument in responses to petitions tabled this week in Parliament.
And while Zuberi’s motion noted the result of the February 2021 vote, it did not ask voting MPs to again designate China’s actions as a genocide.
Zuberi said he was encouraged that Wednesday’s vote included support from Trudeau and Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, which he chalked up to the fact that more information has been emerging about the situation in Xinjiang.
“This was the first time that cabinet pronounced itself on the issue of the Uyghurs,” he said.