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He Fled From Chinese Camps. Now He's Escaping Russia's War In Ukraine.

Yilisen Aierken outside Almaty International Airport in 2019.
Yilisen Aierken outside Almaty International Airport in 2019.

As shock and panic hit Kyiv in the first few hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Yilisen Aierken, a 24-year-old ethnic Kazakh asylum-seeker from China, issued a desperate plea on his Twitter account.

“Please rescue me. I’m currently in Ukraine,” he said in a February 24 video posted on social media platforms as crowds of people with packed bags passed in the background outside a bus terminal in the Ukrainian capital. “I don’t want to die. I am lonely and helpless, please help me.”

Aierken (aka Ersin Erkinuly) applied for asylum in Ukraine after fleeing China’s western Xinjiang Province, where he believed he would be interned as part of a dragnet by the Chinese government that has put more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities into detention camps and prisons.

Now, after a week of war across Ukraine that has caused more than 2,000 civilian deaths and sparked a refugee crisis that the UN estimates could see 4 million people leave the country, Aierken has once again had to flee, this time joining the masses of Ukrainians heading west to countries like Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia on the European Union’s eastern flank.

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“I have no country anymore and [I feel] that I can no longer control my own destiny,” Aierken told RFE/RL as he left Kyiv. “I [do not] want to be waiting to die, I want [safety].”

Upon leaving Kyiv, Aierken made a high-stakes, multiday journey and arrived at the Polish border on March 1.

After a chaotic experience at the border and waiting multiple days in a separate line designated for foreigners and non-Ukrainians fleeing the war, he made it to a Ukrainian checkpoint and was stamped out of Ukraine on March 3 without problems, despite no longer having a passport and few other official documents.

After reaching the Polish side, he was detained and briefly moved to an asylum center where the Polish authorities are currently holding those crossing from Ukraine without proper documents or who are stateless, Leila Nazgul Seiitbek, a lawyer and chairwoman of the NGO Freedom For Eurasia who is assisting Aierken, told RFE/RL.

After several hours with border authorities and a review of his case, his asylum application was logged and Aierken has now been released into Poland.

“He must now reenter the entire asylum process,” Seiitbek said. “He’s still in quite a vulnerable position. Aierken and others like him have no embassy or anyone able to take care of them in their home countries.”

The Journey From China

As he now begins what is likely to be a long and complicated asylum process in Poland, the endeavor has brought back feelings for Aierken of his arduous journey leaving China.

“I just want to be able to live a life and have freedom,” Aierken said in a WhatsApp audio message before entering Poland. “I hope I do not go back to China.”

The risks waiting back in China are real for Aierken.

Chinese authorities have been accused of using forced birth control, indentured labor, and torture in the camp system in Xinjiang, where ethnic Kazakhs are the second-largest Muslim group after Uyghurs.

Beijing has repeatedly denied the allegations -- despite a growing wealth of evidence -- saying the camps were established to fight extremism and their use is justified.

For Aierken, the decision to leave became clear in 2019, as many people he knew -- especially other young men -- began to disappear into the vast camp network. To avoid being sent himself, he left Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, and took a flight to neighboring Kazakhstan.
After arriving in Kazakhstan in December 2019, he initially planned to stay in the country and received a residence permit. But he became dismayed and fearful as a result of his interactions with security services, who expressed hostility toward him and pressured him over his experiences in Xinjiang, Aierken said.

The Kazakh government enjoys a warm relationship with China and has walked a tightrope with Beijing over the issue of the Xinjiang internment camps, where many ethnic Kazakhs have been sent.

Kazakhstan has accepted some asylum applications from ethnic Kazakhs who crossed the border from China, but they have faced intimidation and pressure to stay quiet about their ordeal.

Worried about his future, Aierken flew to Ukraine in October 2020, where he initially tried to enter Poland, but was arrested and sent back to Ukraine, where he was also detained while stuck in the legal system until eventually logging an asylum application.

While waiting for a decision on his asylum status in Ukraine, Aierken faced intimidation and the prospect of being returned to China before a Ukrainian court ruled against it.

The Chinese Embassy in Kyiv also petitioned for his return to the country, writing in a letter to Ukraine’s State Migration Service, of which RFE/RL has obtained a copy, that Aierken wished to be returned to China and was lying about any persecution he faced in Xinjiang.

An undated photo of Yilisen Aierken while in a detention facility in Ukraine.
An undated photo of Yilisen Aierken while in a detention facility in Ukraine.

“We ask you to decline to grant refugee status to the above-mentioned individual in order to preserve a positive dynamic of constructive development between our two governments,” the letter states.

While waiting on a final ruling on his status in Ukraine, Aierken was allowed to live freely there, but says that he became scared about staying in the country after two strangers threatened to kill him unless he returned to China.

Fearful and panicked, he decided to leave Ukraine for Slovakia in August 2021, where he was arrested and initially faced deportation to China before the intervention of Rayhan Asat, a Connecticut-based Uyghur human rights lawyer who argued for his release back to Ukraine, where he stayed until the outbreak of the war.

“He was still in [legal] limbo, but at least he was safe,” Asat told RFE/RL. “He thought he could have a new life in Ukraine, but he’s had to rethink everything and once again run for his life.”

Another Crisis

The United Nations Human Right Commissioner said on March 3 that at least 1 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia launched its war, with more than 505,000 people going to Poland.

Makeshift accommodation is being set up across the country, and Poles are helping Ukrainians on a massive scale, transporting them across the border, hosting them in their homes, and feeding and clothing them.

But a more arduous and perhaps less-welcoming path lies ahead for Aierken and other asylum-seekers fleeing Ukraine.

Refugees from Ukraine arrive at the railway station in Przemysl, Poland, on February 27.
Refugees from Ukraine arrive at the railway station in Przemysl, Poland, on February 27.

In the years leading up to the Russian invasion, Poland’s government has taken a hard line on migrants trying to enter the country. The army and border guards also have pushed asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa back into Belarus in December after Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government flew in migrants and funneled them to the borders of EU member states like Poland.

Amid the mass exodus from Ukraine, many international students and other foreigners attempting to leave the country also say they have experienced racist treatment by Ukrainian security forces and border officials.

The UN Refugee Agency raised the issue on March 2 and pleaded for more compassion for non-Europeans and refugees from other nations fleeing Ukraine.

Asat says that -- now that an application for asylum has occurred -- Aierken must wait in Poland for a ruling on his case, which could take anywhere from months to years as the Polish government deals with a massive influx of refugees and asylum-seekers that could overburden the country’s immigration system.

“We’ve entered into a bit of uncharted territory now with the refugee crisis,” said Asat. “But he should have some protection now.”

Upon being released by Polish authorities, Aierken sent RFE/RL a text message that he had crossed into Poland successfully:

“I am free,” the note read.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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