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Satellite Images Show China's Expansion Of Muslim Detention Camps


There are signs that China's internment of Muslims has become even more enormous, mechanized and horrifying. BuzzFeed News has used satellite images and interviews with former inmates to identify 260 fortified detention compounds built in the western regions of China to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims. It is the largest detention of ethnic and religious minorities since the Second World War. Megha Rajagopalan, along with Alison Killing and Christo Buschek, worked on this story. Megha Rajagopalan joins us from London.

Thank you so much for being with us.

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you for having me on.

SIMON: What could you see in satellite photos? What did you detect?

RAJAGOPALAN: So we knew that there were these internment camps in Xinjiang. We knew that there were a lot of them, but nobody had ever actually managed to document the whole scale of the program. And we thought, what if there were a way to try to find all of them?

So we knew we couldn't physically go and visit these camps. So we ended up looking for a kind of method to be able to find them in satellite images. And what we ended up finding was 268 camps that have been built just since 2017. And some of these places are really massive. When you look at them in the satellite image, you can see that they can house more than 10,000 people. And we found at least one that's capable of housing more than 30,000. And that's without taking into consideration overcrowding.

SIMON: You suggest in your reporting that this represents a drastic new step to build what seems like permanent facilities.

RAJAGOPALAN: That's right. So what we found in the satellite images was that starting in about 2018, the government started to build these massive purpose-built facilities. And when you see them in the satellite image, you can see, like, how fortified they are. They really look like prisons. They have very thick walls. You know, they have, like, heavy barbed wire. They have guard towers everywhere. You know, some of them are really, really massive. There is very little open space.

If you look at the kind of plans of the buildings - which you can do in historical satellite images because you can see them as they're being constructed before they've put the roof on - you can see inside that there is very, very little natural light that comes to the interiors of these buildings. So we did an analysis, and we found that they have, like, all of the hallmarks of, you know, highly fortified prison camps.

SIMON: What goes on in there?

RAJAGOPALAN: So the Chinese government says that the purpose of these facilities is for education and vocational training. And there's a kind of a kernel of truth to that, which is that, you know, these people are being taught Chinese language, and they're being taught basically Communist Party dogma and, you know, propaganda.

But in addition to that, I think everybody that I talked to talked about, you know, really horrifying abuses - things like being held in stress positions, deprivation of food, deprivation of sleep, being sent to solitary confinement, you know, torture, being beaten with batons. Women I talked to said that they lived perpetually in fear of being raped. They talked about being forced to take what they believed was birth control. All of these things have become common to the testimony of the former detainees who have actually gone on to be able to speak with the media.

SIMON: The Chinese government has denied all this, and the Chinese Consulate in New York City sent you a statement, which I'll read from, saying that local governments there, quote, "have set up vocational education and training centers in order to root out extreme thoughts, enhance the rule of law awareness through education, improve vocational skills and create employment opportunities." Do you find that persuasive?

RAJAGOPALAN: So based on the former detainees that I have interviewed over a period of years, I don't find it persuasive because, you know, the government has said two things at the same time - that, one, these are vocational facilities that people have freedom to participate and come and go as they please. And two, they've compared it at the same time to what they term to be anti-extremist programs of incarceration in other countries. And, you know, they named the United States as one of these countries. And they say that this program is actually like that. So it's normal.

And to my mind, it can't be both. The people that I've interviewed have said that they were detained, you know, with police officers putting a sack over their heads, being handcuffed and taken away. None of these people were told what their transgressions were. And most of them - the things that they were accused of are not even crimes under Chinese law. They're things like downloading and using apps like WhatsApp, you know, praying or having religious materials at home. You know, all kinds of things like this can be grounds for detention.

SIMON: And maybe we should pause to explain that it's not just the treatment in these camps, these detention centers that's an issue for Muslims in western China, is it?

RAJAGOPALAN: Yeah, that's a really good point. So the other side of this is that, you know, starting in about 2016 and 2017, the government started implementing a heavy-handed campaign of digital and human surveillance. So what that looks like is that there's a very dense police presence all throughout the region. There are checkpoints, you know, outside every town and city and within cities as well. Facial recognition cameras are ubiquitous. And the system is what helps make determinations about who gets detained and who doesn't. So there's a kind of direct link between the surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang and the mass detention camps.

SIMON: What about the argument of the Chinese government that - you know, that we have similar facilities in the West in the U.S. and the U.K.?

RAJAGOPALAN: What's fundamentally different in China is that this is not a case where there is any kind of due process happening for the majority of people. They have clearly framed this as a kind of deradicalization program. And to me, that sends the message that people are at risk of quote-unquote "radicalization" for - not for any action that they might have done, but because of - you know, of who they are and what their ethnic background is. And to me, that's a fundamentally different issue than, you know, all of the problems with prison systems elsewhere in the world, including the United States.

SIMON: Megha Rajagopalan of BuzzFeed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.