On July 26, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) released a statement titled “Solidarity with Uyghur Students.” In the statement, the UTSU affirmed its support for Uyghur Muslim students at U of T and condemned the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China.
In the 1990s, the Xinjiang region, an autonomous region in China, experienced a wave of separatist activism, resulting in the Ghulja massacre in which hundreds of peaceful protesters were allegedly shot by Chinese military forces. The Chinese authorities blamed the Uyghur population — which accounts for more than 40 per cent of the region’s population — for the protests.
Since then, Chinese authorities have kept the region under strict surveillance.
The Chinese authorities have reportedly forcibly relocated over a million Uyghur people to “re-education camps” and imprisoned thousands of others. While the Chinese government denies these allegations, numerous documents leaked in May 2022 detail the illegal detention of the Uyghur people by Chinese authorities.
In January 2021, the United States declared that China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims constitutes genocide.
The UTSU statement reads, “The UTSU stands in solidarity with Uyghur Muslim students facing discrimination, harassment, unsafety, separation from relatives in concentration camps, and in exile from their homeland East Turkistan.”
The union urges the U of T community to take action against China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims.
Additionally, the union demands that the university diligently work to “ensure that it does not purchase or use goods from foreign and domestic companies that directly or indirectly contribute to human rights abuses against Uyghurs.” The statement specifically refers to major North American fashion retailers that have been accused of buying cotton produced by forced labour in Xinjiang.
The statement concludes by calling other U of T student bodies to foster a “welcoming space for all students from marginalized backgrounds, and to pay attention to and support Muslim students feeling unsafe due to their ethnicity.”
UTSU’s future advocacy plans and demands
In an email to The Varsity, UTSU President Omar Gharbiyeh discussed the union’s statement.
“The UTSU has a duty to ensure that these students feel welcomed, safe, and acknowledged on campus,” wrote Gharbiyeh.
Gharbiyeh acknowledged that some may question the pertinence of global events for a student union, but Gharbiyeh believes that it is the UTSU’s responsibility to “advocate for justice globally.”
According to Gharbiyeh, the union anticipates more advocacy initiatives as part of its commitment to stand with Uyghur Muslims. “This is the first concrete statement our institution has made on the issue, but we are in the process of articulating and designing a more fulsome and robust response throughout the coming year, particularly through our equity-related events and programming.”
Gharbiyeh also shared several actions U of T could take to support Uyghur students. He believes the university should boycott companies “benefiting from Uyghur forced labour,” provide support to students experiencing displacement, and ensure that the Chinese persecution of Uyghur Muslims is covered in the university’s curriculum.
Additionally, Gharbiyeh believes that the university should condemn China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims.
Gharbiyeh concluded, “Making spaces accessible, implementing anti-racism, gender-based violence, and equity policies and holding one another accountable is essential to fostering a welcoming environment.”