“Here on featherweight rights, with relatives in Xinjiang pressured”: The fates of those who fled China

Qaisha Aqan, a Kazakh from China, with an asylum-seeker certificate.

The following is a translation of a Radio Azattyq article by Nurtai Lahan from early September 2023, describing the difficulties faced by three Kazakh refugees who fled China in 2018-2019. Additional links and images have been added in this republishing of the original.

A few years ago, ethnic Kazakhs Qaisha Aqan, Qaster Musahan, and Murager Alim, fearing persecution in Xinjiang, fled China and illegally crossed the Kazakhstan border. This year marks their third living on refugee certificates, as Astana is neither granting them citizenship nor issuing the travel documents necessary to relocate to a third country. According to the refugees, Beijing is pressuring their relatives back in Xinjiang and making an effort to force them to return to China.


Qaisha Aqan fled to Kazakhstan in May 2018. She made an illegal border crossing, passing without documents or a visa through the checkpoint at Korgas. The reason for her fleeing was the persecution of Kazakhs in northwest China – Qaisha feared being sent to one of the “political re-education camps”, where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic peoples of Xinjiang were interned. (Beijing has officially justified its creation of the network of hundreds of closed facilities by citing the need to deradicalize its citizens, while aiming to teach them Chinese language and culture. However, former detainees of the “camps” have told of harsh torture, forced labor exploitation, and medical experiments, on the territory of facilities that resemble prisons.)

47-year-old Qaisha now resides in the town of Talgar, in the Almaty Region. Here in Kazakhstan, she has started a family with a local resident, but as a result of her lacking the proper documents to certify her identity, the couple cannot officially register their marriage.

Qaisha Aqan’s 70-year-old mother, her adult son, and her two brothers live in Xinjiang’s Toqquztara County. Qaisha says that she wanted to have her mother move to Kazakhstan and sent her the formal invitation through relatives, but the Chinese side did not allow her mother to leave the country.

“My mother, who’s over 70, has often been pressured by people from the county police. According to her, they demand that I return voluntarily. ‘Or we’ll return her ourselves at the end of the year,’ they threaten. They said that there were ‘talks ongoing with Kazakhstan about the return’. Recently, some armed police officers were also threatening my brother. Another brother they took back to the township, despite him working in a different place, and told him not to leave the locality. ‘Let Qaisha return by her own will,’ they tell my relatives. ‘If she does, we’ll return her the money from her bank account and the home.’”

But Qaisha remains fearful.

“In reality, they’ll just immediately send me to prison.”

She has no other documents apart from a refugee certificate, and is currently unemployed.

Qaisha and two other Kazakhs who also fled Xinjiang, Qaster Musahan and Murager Alim, previously applied for Kazakhstan citizenship. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, however, has stated that it will not be granting it to them, citing laws concerning migration:

In accordance with Article 49 of the law of the Republic of Kazakhstan (No. 477-IV) on Migration, dated July 22, 2011, foreigners and stateless individuals who entered [the country] illegally and were found guilty of illegally crossing the border, in addition to individuals pursued for breaking the law in their country of origin, are denied permanent residence in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Given the above, it is currently impossible to grant citizenship of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Murager Alim (second from left), Qaster Musahan (third from left), and Qaisha Aqan (far right) outside the building of the Kazakhstan Ministry of Internal Affairs, where they went with the request to either issue them citizenship or a document allowing departure for a third country.

Qaster and Murager also fled Xinjiang because of fears of persecution. In October 2019, they illegally crossed the border in the Zaisan District of the East Kazakhstan Region.

In October 2020, Kazakhstan’s MIA granted refugee status to Qaisha Aqan, Qaster Musahan, Murager Alim, and Bagashar Malik, issuing them certificates valid for one year. However, it is now the third year that the Kazakhstan authorities have been extending the certificates’ period of validity.


35-year-old Qaster Musahan currently works as a livestock herder in the Almaty Region. After being released from prison, where he was interned for illegally crossing the border, he’s made his living herding others’ livestock. In Xinjiang, Qaster used to prepare horses for races, and says that he’s now been preparing a wealthy person’s horse for a race since coming to Almaty about a month ago.

“The only one of my relatives in China that I still talk on the phone with is my mother,” he says. “She’s 60, and her health has worsened from all the stress and worry. She doesn’t have the opportunity to undergo treatment. I also have a younger brother. He’s also sick and cannot work. In 2016, he was put into a ‘political re-education camp’, which he only left in March of this year. They said he has gastrointestinal perforation. He didn’t even have enough time to get married. Originally, they were supposed to release him in 2019, but didn’t because of my having fled.”

The reconstructed trajectory of Qaster and Murager’s flight, as based on their accounts. After making it to Almaty and going public, they were forced to return to Oskemen and Zaisan for detention and trial.

According to Qaster, the authorities visit his relatives in China often. The police ask his mother and brother about him, asking where he lives and what he’s busy with.

“My mother cries whenever I call her, telling me about her situation. I can’t do anything to help them, seeing how I’m also on featherweight rights here. I don’t know who or what I’m living for. I don’t have any documents. If the Kazakhstan government doesn’t want to give us citizenship, they could at least grant travel documents. Then we’d move abroad and get jobs there.”

For 29-year-old Murager Alim, who fled to Kazakhstan together with Qaster, those left behind in Xinjiang include his parents, wife, and underage son. He currently works as a cook in Almaty, at a café owned by a close relative.

Qaster Musahan (left) and Murager Alim in Astana, September 2021.

“Acquaintances and people from my town [in Xinjiang] come for 14-day stays [editor’s note: Kazakhstan has allowed visa-free entry for Chinese citizens whose length of stay doesn’t exceed two weeks],” Murager says. “I sometimes meet with them. According to them, they’ve [the police] said that: ‘Murager’s not going anywhere, and we’ll bring him back in the end.’ I think it’s precisely because of China’s influence that the Kazakhstan authorities can’t even issue us travel documents. They might be pressuring them.”

In April of 2021, after failing to obtain Kazakhstan citizenship, Qaisha Aqan, Murager Alim, and Qaster Musahan requested that the government issue them travel documents to allow them to go to a third country. Kazakhstan, however, has not done so.


Article 9 of Kazakhstan’s “On Refugees” law states that refugees “have the right to work freely or engage in entrepreneurial activity, and the right to obtain a travel document”. However, Qaisha, Qaster, and Murager have said that they cannot use these rights, since they have neither individual identification numbers nor identification documents.

The refugees from China stress that “the refugee certificate doesn’t allow them to get social or medical assistance, or to apply for a job”. They complain of not even being able to register a phone number in their name.

To them, one viable solution would be moving to a third country.

In 2021, the MIA replied to the three regarding permission to travel, saying that amendments were being introduced into the migration law:

These changes will allow refugees to make international trips and will simplify the visa procedures. As such, this will help realize the right of refugees to leave any country, the host country included. However, taking into consideration the introduced changes only coming into force on January 1, 2022, we must inform that it is currently impossible to obtain a travel document.

However, two years later, the law has still not been passed.

The MIA’s press service has informed Azattyq that the draft law allowing travel documents to be issued to individuals with refugee certificates is currently under review in the parliament.

Specifically, the official letter from the MIA to Azattyq states that the draft law “On Amendments and Additions to Certain Legislative Acts Regarding the Improvement of Human Migration”, which stipulates changes to Article 9 of the “On National Registries of Identification Numbers” law and Article 29 of the “On Documents of Identification” law, is currently under review in the lower house.

It is not known when actually the draft law will be reviewed, nor when the new rules would go into effect should it be passed.

“Following a law being passed, it is necessary to bring into compliance a number of subordinate acts, orders, and examinations, and the budget commission,” the MIA’s reply to Azattyq adds.

Aina Shormanbayeva, who is the head of the “International Legal Initiative” nonprofit organization and has experience defending the rights of refugees from Xinjiang, says that the law already grants refugees the right to obtain travel documents. That the documents are not being issued is, in her opinion, “evidence that the Kazakhstan authorities do not care about refugees”.

The activist Auyt Muqibek, who works on issues faced by Kazakhs in China and is himself a migrant from China, finds it conceivable that the refusal to issue travel documents may have political motives.

“Talks of the two countries finalizing agreements about returning refugees from Xinjiang may be false, and the police in Xinjiang may have lied in order to scare or fool the refugees’ relatives,” he says. “However, the fact that the issuing of the documents is stipulated by law, and yet in practice the documents are not being issued, raises the question of whether the neighboring country may be exerting influence on the refugees being able to leave for a third country.”

News of the mass incarceration of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims from Xinjiang into “political re-education camps” first appeared in 2017. According to the UN, around one million people may have passed through Xinjiang’s network of closed facilities. Beijing justifies its policies as “counter-extremism”, calling the camps “vocational training centers”. As the persecution of Xinjiang’s indigenous people has continued, some of the Uyghurs and Kazakhs residing in the region were able to flee China.

Four of the six ethnic Kazakhs who fled from China to Kazakhstan between 2017 and 2019 – Qaisha Aqan, Qaster Musahan, Murager Alim, and Bagashar Malik – were able to obtain refugee status. Another Kazakh from China, Tilek Tabarak, who now resides in the town of Panfilovo of Almaty Region, was not able to. Sairagul Sauytbai, a Kazakh woman who had fled Xinjiang earlier, relocated with her family to Sweden on June 3, 2019, after Kazakhstan refused to grant her refugee status.

Protestors outside the Chinese consulate in Almaty. The campaign has lasted years, with the protestors at times being manhandled by the police and given astronomical fines.

Attempts by the Azattyq reporter to reach Tilek Tabarak were unsuccessful. Bagashar Malik, residing in the Enbekshikazakh District of Almaty Region, says that “everything’s as it has been”. Residing in Kazakhstan on a refugee certificate, Bagashar recounted that his parents from Xinjiang visited some time ago, and had not encountered any sort of pressure. The Kazakhstan authorities have avoided being critical of China, one of Kazakhstan’s key investors and creditors, detaining and fining Kazakhs who hold protests in front of the Chinese consulate in Almaty with the demand that their relatives in Xinjiang be released from detention and the families be allowed to reunite. Experts say that Astana fears eliciting discontent from its neighbor, who continues to build infrastructure and invest resources into the country while advancing its ambitious “Belt and Road” geopolitical initiative.

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