On Call International’s Monthly Risk Spotlight highlights events of heightened importance in assessing risk to travel and operations abroad.
China’s Oppressive “Surveillance State” in Xinjiang Province
At the session of the UN Human Rights Council in July 2019, ambassadors of 22 countries joined in drafting a letter to express concern about China’s human rights abuses in its western province of Xinjiang. They also called for “meaningful access for independent international observers.” According to estimates, Chinese authorities are holding more than one-million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in concentration camps, which China refers to as “re-education camps.” There have been reports of families being separated and intrusive monitoring of ordinary citizens by high-tech surveillance systems. The global response has been tepid at best, with several Muslim countries supporting China’s stand and other Western nations stopping short of outright condemnation and action.
Uighurs within the region have long sought to maintain their cultural and religious distinctiveness. Their identity is based on their religion (Islam), cultural and ethnic roots with Central Asian nations, and a Turkic language similar to Turkish. Uighur identity has remained fragmented, as some support a Pan-Islamic vision while others support a pan-Turkic vision. A third group is vying for an independent “Uyghurstan” state. While the last few decades have seen a mass migration of Han Chinese to the area to change the demographic composition, along with other actions by the Chinese government, it is only in recent times that control over the region has become an imperative. The Xinjiang region has emerged as a central plank to China’s ‘Belt and Road’ ambitions of new trade routes to Europe via Central Asia for accessing new markets, mineral wealth, and investment opportunities. Security in the region has thus emerged as a priority. China began perfecting its model of state surveillance a last decade ago after anti-Chinese rioting in Urumqi killed nearly 200 people. It has further strengthened this surveillance in the background of terrorist attacks and wider public unrest.
According to reports by international organizations, around one-million Uighurs and other Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained since April 2017. The reasons for detention range from traveling to or contacting people from one of the 26 countries that China considers sensitive, attending services at mosques, quoting Quranic verses, or possessing material about Uighur separatist groups. There is little information on what happens in the camps, since China has banned media and foreign observers from accessing the area. However, testimonies from the people who have escaped indicate that detainees are forced to pledge loyalty to the Communist Party of China (CCP), renounce Islam, and learn Mandarin. Some have reported prison-like conditions along with physical torture. There have also been allegations that children are separated from their detained parents and kept in state-run orphanages, where they are ideologically indoctrinated to the CCP and the Chinese nation.
China is reportedly relying on both physical security measures and high-tech surveillance methods to keep a check on ordinary citizens. China Electronics Technology Corporation’s (CETC) surveillance system is designed to tap into networks of neighborhood informants, track individuals and their behavior, anticipate potential crime, protest, or violence, and recommend troop deployment accordingly. In Xinjiang, this is being used to monitor and keep track of every movement of Uighurs. The program helps to identify people who are being radicalized and then recommends action. Chinese company Hikvision’s video surveillance equipment has been installed at mosques and detention centers. CETC’s platform draws on databases with 68-billion records. Recently, a joint investigation, including The Guardian and The New York Times, found that use of smartphone surveillance is not limited to the local population. All foreigners crossing into Xinjiang are forced to install a piece of malware (Feng Cai) on their phones that gives all of their text messages, phone contacts, apps, and other data to the authorities. It is an extension of the local-targeting IJOP (Integrated Joint Operations Platform), which scans devices for files against a target list, particularly Islamic content.
Middle East and North Africa
Tensions Escalate in the Strait of Hormuz, Creating Wider Geopolitical and Economic Risks
With increasing tensions between Iran, the U.S., and other Western powers, geopolitical uncertainties have increased in the crucial Strait of Hormuz – a major pathway for global energy supplies. On July 19, Iranian authorities seized a British oil tanker, citing reasons such as the tanker violating international maritime rules. Iranian officials stated that the seizure of the British ship was a reaction to the U.K.’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker in the coast of Gibraltar at the beginning of July. In another incident, two Saudi oil tankers were damaged in sabotage attacks in May 2019, just outside the strait. While the U.S. blamed Iran for the attack, the latter has refused to take any responsibility. The same pattern was repeated in June, this time involving one Norwegian and one Japanese tanker.
The backdrop of the increased tensions in the Strait of Hormuz can be traced back to 2018, when U.S. President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Iran after pulling out from the nuclear deal. The second round of sanctions was imposed again in November 2018, targeting Iran’s oil and banking sectors. This was followed by strong opposition from Iran, which led to the U.S. deploying 1,500 additional troops in the Middle East. Against this escalated rhetoric between both countries, the Strait of Hormuz began witnessing increased activities, finally leading to the seizure of the U.K. ship, Stena Impero.
In July 2019, the Iranian foreign minister also warned that foreign powers should leave the region, with a clear indication that it would again attempt to disrupt maritime traffic in the strait. With the unresolved nuclear deal issues between Iran and the Western powers, and the additional security risks growing in the Strait of Hormuz, it is evident there is increasing complexity with an overarching geopolitical impact. The European powers are attempting to work around the U.S. sanctions on Iran through a new financial system, Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX). However, it remains unclear whether such steps could culminate in the resolution of this long-standing tension between Iran, the U.S., and other Western powers. Iran has also announced that as a retaliatory measure, it will enrich its fuel to weapon-grade levels – thus bypassing the concerns of the European signatories of the nuclear deal. In July, Iran gave Europe 60 days to work out a plan to help the former economically, while at the same time refusing to negotiate with the U.S. while the sanctions remain.
Europe and the Central Independent States
Raids in Italy on Far-Right Members Reveal a Cache of Weapons and Neo-Nazi Propaganda
In a series of coordinated raids across northern Italian cities on July 15, the Italian police seized an unprecedented cache of weapons, including a combat-ready air-to-air missile. The police also recovered neo-Nazi propaganda. The police said the raids were part of a year-long investigation into the Italian far-right members who have allegedly participated in the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. Arrests of members and the arsenal of weapons that were discovered signified battle preparedness as well as links to the neo-fascist Forza Nuova party.
Reports have stated that the police discovered a French-made Matra air-to-air missile that appeared to have once belonged to the Qatar armed forces. Another media report stated the missile probably made its way from Qatar to Libya and was then purchased by the Italian mafia. Police also found rocket launchers, machine guns, and bullets of various calibers procured from Austria, Germany, and the United States, as well as a trove of neo-Nazi propaganda. Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, claimed the arsenal was in the hands of a far-right Ukrainian group planning to assassinate him. However, law enforcement agencies have said there is no evidence the politician was targeted for assassination. The weapons were likely intended as part of an arms deal by the far-right cell. Among the three arrested was an Italian ex-customs officer and party activist of the far-right Forza Nuova party. However, it has so far been unclear whether those arrested in the recent raids were fighting for the Russian-backed separatists or the other party, i.e., the pro-Ukrainian nationalists.
The discovery of the scale and sophistication of the arms, and the background of those arrested, has further heightened the dangers posed by Italy’s rising far-right groups. In a similar incident on July 3, a court in Genoa jailed three men who were found guilty of fighting in eastern Ukraine – in this case, alongside the Russian-backed separatists. The incident also unleashed a political diatribe, with Maurizio Martina, the former head of the opposition Centre-left Democratic Party, stating “The far-right in this country traffics weapons of war and even missiles. It’s an incredible, very serious event.” Many politicians have blamed the populist Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, whose Lega party’s platform of anti-immigration, ultra-nationalism, and pro-Russian tilt have strengthened the country’s right-wing groups. Fascist symbols, rhetoric, and Nazi salutes have become more visible in daily life in Italy. The opposition has sought to corner the coalition government (Lega party and the Five Star Movement) for the findings from these raids, as well as for Salvini’s alleged attempts to solicit illegal funding for his Lega party from three Russians.
Migrants Face Deadly Violence in Mexico
Migrants from other Latin American countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, etc. (neighboring Mexico) who want to enter the U.S. are being made to wait south of the border – primarily because of two U.S. policies. The first policy sharply caps the number of asylum applications that border stations can accept in one day. The second policy states the people who have applied need to wait in Mexico while the individual cases make their way through the American legal system. These twin U.S. policies were implemented as part of the Remain in Mexico plan (or the Migrant Protection protocols) and have played a significant role in deterring Latin American migrants from entering the U.S. However, the downside to the policies has been that the migrants escaping dangerous living conditions in their own countries are facing similar dangers along the borders of Mexico.
Recently, the incidents of brutal assaults, murders, kidnappings, armed robberies, extortion, car hijacking, violence, and crimes against women and children have increased manifold in Mexican areas such as Juarez, Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas state, Tijuana, and others. These areas already have a history of violence due to drug trafficking and cartelization. Nuevo Laredo is so violent that the U.S. State Department advises against travel to the place under the highest travel warning – level 4. The increasing population of migrants along the Mexican borders (a country that faces its own issues of illegal immigrants) has put immense stress on the infrastructure in the respective areas – instances of illegal employment and under-the-table dealings with immigration officials have come to the fore.
The purported U.S. Remain in Mexico policy is eliciting opposition from American asylum officers who have filed a court brief citing the unsafe conditions prevalent in Mexico. Evidently, despite a firm commitment, the Mexican government has not been able to provide apt protection to the migrants. With the U.S. tightening internal policies against migration, and the Mexican government unable to protect the dignity and the lives of migrants in waiting, the situation has reached a dismal state. The Remain in Mexico plan was supposed to provide humanitarian visas and work permits to the migrants. However, opponents and rights activists state that migrants are being subjected to sub-human living conditions. Reports of U.S. officials separating mothers and children along the borders – putting their health and safety at risk – have also come to the fore.
Land Expropriation in South Africa Has Increased Security Risks
Twenty-five years after the end of apartheid in South Africa, racial inequality is still prevalent in the country’s economic and social fabric. A glaring example is the country’s farming sector. According to statistics, black Africans own just % of farms, whereas white Africans own 72% of the land even though the latter constitute less than 10% of the population. Ahead of the national elections in May, the land issue had been a major talking point – now, with the African National Congress (ANC) winning again, it remains to be seen whether the party will implement any reforms. Assuring there will be no land grabs, the government plans to take and transfer land only under codified, legal, and limited conditions.
The ANC won the May elections, but with the lowest percentage of votes since the end of apartheid in 1994, losing its votes to the far left-populist party, Economic Freedom Fighters. Currently, the party seems dedicated to making amendments that are required to rectify the racially-skewed ownership patterns dating back to white rule in South Africa. On the other hand, the opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, is calling for nationalization of all rural land without compensation. The government had already released the Department of Public Works’ draft Expropriation Bill (the third version of the bill) on December 21, 2018. The bill proposed that the government could take the land, without pay, under the following conditions:
- If a labor tenant uses the land
- If the land belongs to a state-owned company
- If the owner has abandoned the land
The bill also states that an expropriating authority can use the land temporarily (for about twelve months), without compensation, if the land is used for the public interest.
The land issue has become more complicated and deeply entrenched over the past years. The implementation of the land reforms needs to be fair and fast, and calls for addressing the social legacy of apartheid first. The government land reforms should aim at passing control to the present tillers of the land in the rural areas. It should also allow the urban poor to produce food and graze livestock and provide land for housing for the growing number of informal settlements. This is an immense challenge for the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa, who must take constructive steps to alleviate the poverty of black people and end the social apartheid. Failure to do so could further erode ANC credibility and popularity and increase social unrest in the country in the coming years.