Travel Restrictions for China Muslims
  • Thu, 07/31/2008 - 12:00 & News Agencies
Thu. Jul. 31, 2008

URUMQI, China — With the clock ticking for the opening of Beijing Olympics, Chinese Muslims are complaining of travel restrictions and being picked up for strip searches before boarding.

"They went through everything I have," Hasmat, an Uighur Muslim trader, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday, July 31, after a body search at the airport in Urumqi, the capital of the mostly Muslim Xinjiang region.

"The security is really intense now."

Hasmat was asked by authorities to obtain letters from firms he planned to visit before he could obtain a ticket from a Chinese airline for a business trip to the city of Xian.

"It is because I am Uighur. It is unfair," fumed the Muslim trader who used to move freely in the past.

Uighur Muslims, a Turkish-speaking minority of eight million in northwest Xinjiang region, have long chafed under Chinese control.

The government claims Uighur separatists seeking an independent homeland plot to target the Olympics but rights groups accuse Beijing of exaggerating the threat to stifle dissent in Xinjiang.

"We support the Olympics too," insisted Hasmat.

Xinjiang has been autonomous since 1955, but continues to be the subject of security crackdowns.

Beijing views the region as an invaluable asset because of its crucial strategic location near Central Asia and its large oil and gas reserves.


The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, an exile group opposed to China's control of Xinjiang, says many Uighurs are being barred from planes outright.

"They cannot buy the tickets. They are being told they are sold out," Dilxat Raxit, the group's spokesman, told AFP.

"This is part of a pattern of discrimination against Uighurs by Chinese authorities," said Raxit.

A spokeswoman for the Civil Aviation Administration of China denied air travel restrictions for Uighur Muslims.

"That's impossible. As far as I know, there is no such regulation."

China wants to use the Beijing Olympics, to be launched on August 8, to polish its international image amid growing concerns regarding its human rights record.

But on a recent day at Urumqi airport, only a handful of Uighur travelers could be seen amid hundreds of ethnic Han Chinese who queued for flights, according to AFP.

The harassment is not even restricted to air travel.

In one case, a young Uighur woman was forced by authorities to undergo a strip search before boarding a train in Kashgar, a historic Silk Road oasis city near the Pakistan border.

A Uighur woman in her 20s in Kashgar said she had twice been denied a train ticket to Urumqi to start training for a new job.

Her passport had been confiscated by police for "safe-keeping".

"Many of us are now just forgetting any plans we had and waiting for all of this to end."