Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

2 Ethnic Kazakhs from China Granted Asylum-Seeker Status in Kazakhstan

But like Sayragul Sauytbay before them, Murager Alimuly and Qaster Musakhanuly may not ultimately find asylum in Kazakhstan.

Catherine Putz
2 Ethnic Kazakhs from China Granted Asylum-Seeker Status in Kazakhstan
Credit: Pixabay

Earlier this week, two ethnic Kazakhs from China were given asylum-seeker status in Kazakhstan after having crossed the border from Xinjiang illegally on October 1. The status grants at least temporary reprive from the threat of deportation and highlights, once again, the pressure China’s Xinjiang policies put on Kazakh authorities.

Citing the duo’s lawyer, Bauyrzhan Azanov, RFE/RL reported that the two young men — 25-year-old Murager Alimuly and 30-year-old Qaster Musakhanuly — were granted asylum-seeker status on October 29.

As Darkhan Umirbekov reported for Eurasianet earlier this month, the two men entered Kazakhstan on October 1 and on October 9 appeared in video testimonies posted to Facebook recounting their experiences in Xinjiang. The two men tell familiar tales: time in Xinjiang’s re-education camps; torture; jail for simple acts like wearing a traditional Kazakh hat. (Read Umirbekov’s reports here and here for more details). Shortly after going public with a press conference in Almaty on October 14, the two men were detained by Kazakh authorities. 

In their early October video testimonies, the pair drew parallels to Sayragul Sauytbay, another ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizen who crossed in to Kazakhstan in 2018. 

This week, Kazakhstan reportedly decided to grant Alimuly and Musakhanuly asylum-seeker status. But as with Sauytbay, the two men may find asylum-seeker status little but a temporary reprieve.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Sauytbay was arrested in May 2018, after crossing into Kazakhstan illegally. In her July 2018 trial, Sauytbay offered damning testimony about the re-education camps in Xinjiang. At the time, the Chinese government was still stridently denying the existence of mass internment camps in Xinjiang, despite mounting international attention to the facilities, which scholars have estimated hold more than a million people — Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minority groups. Beijing soon thereafter began discussing the camps as “vocational training centers,” and casting them as part of a counterterrorism and de-radicalization program.

In August 2018, a court in Zharkent — a Kazakh city near the border with Xinjiang — delivered a surprising verdict convicting Sauytbay of crossing the border illegally, but declining to order her deportation. Sauytbay was released and applied for asylum.

Last October Sauytbay was denied asylum. Her status as an asylum-seeker was extended twice as she appealed the state’s decision, but in early June 2019 she and her family left Kazakhstan for Sweden. Sauytbay has since been granted asylum by Sweden and continues to speak out about her experience at the camps. Recently, Haaretz published a devastating feature in which Sauytbay tells her story.

Alimuly and Musakhanuly may ultimately be forced to follow a similar path. Kazakhstan continues to struggle with how to adequately respond to China’s policies in Xinjiang, even as they motivate individuals to come fleeing across the border. Sauytbay was unlikely the first ethnic Kazakh to slip into Kazakhstan from China because of the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang over the past few years; Alimuly and Musakhanuly are unlikely to be the last. It would be quite the surprise for them to receive asylum in Kazakhstan when she did not.

Nur-Sultan, officially, says there are no ethnic Kazakhs in China’s camps. Beijing has long argued that Xinjiang — and what happens there — is an internal issue. But Kazakhstan is not immune and Kazakh authorities don’t have very good options. China is one of Kazakhstan’s most important trade partners, a key diplomatic ally and a neighbor. Nevertheless, Chinese policies are having an impact on Kazakhstan: Civil society groups have sprung up around the issue (they have been diminished by state pressure and fractured by supposed infighting) and the state has seen several anti-Chinese protests in the last few months.