The last time Aziz Isa Elkun saw his elderly mother and father in the disputed Chinese province of Xinjiang was more than two years ago.
Since then, his father has died and he has no idea if his 78-year-old mother and his cousins are still alive, after China launched a brutal crackdown on its Muslim Uighur population.
And in an unprecedented move last month, Chinese authorities forced up to a million ethnic Uighurs into so-called “re-education camps”, ostensibly to teach them about socialism.
Beijing has been accused of trying to wipe out its entire Muslim Uighur population by “re-educating” them away from their faith.
It is seen as a response to riots and violent attacks that the government blamed on Uighur separatists agitating for independence for Xinjiang – a mountainous province seven times bigger than the UK, formerly known as East Turkestan, and the ancestral home of the Uighur nation.
Thousands of innocent men, women and children have been rounded up in their villages and literally disappeared overnight, taken to remote detention centres, where their fate remains unclear.
Elkun was one of the lucky ones who managed to flee his homeland in 1999, when he was expelled from his job because of a poster he had put up as a teenage schoolboy, commemorating a Uighur student uprising.
The 48-year-old, who was at Tiannamen Square in China during the student demonstrations of 1989, made his perilous way to the UK in the back of a lorry via the infamous Sangatte camp in France.
Now the father-of-three, who was granted asylum and became a British citizen in 2005, is calling on the UK government to help him locate his family and put pressure on Beijing to release fellow Uighurs.
Elkun, an academic and researcher, told HuffPost UK: “I’m just asking the British government to show some humanity. I am a UK citizen and the government has a duty of care to me but they are not showing it.
“Sometimes I feel so frustrated because I am so powerless to help my people and family. China is trying to destroy its Uighur population and its seems the world is just watching and not doing anything to stop them.”
Elkun’s father, a medical doctor, died on November 4, 2017.
Two months earlier, Elkun tried to contact his mother Hepizem, to be told she could no longer answer his calls.
“My mother has seen a lot in her 78 years. She witnessed famine in her early teens during the war to support North Korea against American imperialism,” he said.
“She saw many other revolutions and campaigns: the ‘Great Leap Forward’ of the late 1950s when we were supposed to overtake capitalist England in steel production, and Mao’s great Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
“When I called her after my visit she told me ’My dear son, this is going to be very difficult for you. If don’t tell you this, we will be in trouble, but if I do tell you, I know you’ll be very sad, but I have to tell you.
“Please can you stop calling us for a while? Over the last few weeks, whenever you call us, within an hour two or three policemen arrive in our home.
“They first ask about the content of our conversation on the phone, then they say I must stop speaking to you’.”
Elkun’s mother said she had been ordered to stop answering his calls, two years after being ordered by police to report every communication to them.
“I kept telling the police about your telephone calls but now this seems to be not enough,” she told her son.
Elkun, secretary of the International PEN Uighur Centre in London, a collaboration of writers aiming to raise awareness of the cause, added: “I passed a long and anxious week after that call. On the following Saturday, I called my parents’ number, but there was no answer.
“Then I tried my mum’s mobile, but the result was the same: no answer. I listened to a Chinese language Red Song coming from her mobile for a while, then the mobile signal slowly died away.
“It was pretty clear my mother was obeying orders and had left my call deliberately unanswered. I never spoke to her again, except for a very brief chat when my father died and since then I’ve lost contact with her altogether.”
Up to a million Uighur Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in re-education centres, where they are forcibly undergoing indoctrination programmes, which involve studying communist propaganda and renouncing fundamental pillars Islam.
Uighurs can be prosecuted for the most benign demonstration of their faith, such as wearing headscarves, growing “abnormal” beards and reading the Quran.
Their details, collected from facial recognition, identity cards and DNA samples, are fed into a database to determine their loyalty to communism.
Uighur Muslims find themselves the prime target of the ‘sinicization of religions’, a policy which the Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, previously modelled in Tibet to accelerate the political and cultural transformation of local people into Chinese culture.
“The Chinese think we are a threat to its social order because we have a faith that does not fit with Chinese communist ideals,” said Elkun, who lives in London with his wife Rachel and their children.
“Right now I have no idea where my mother and cousins are. In fact, my whole village of about 3,000 is missing and nobody knows for sure where they have been taken.
“I have written to MPs here and met some in Westminster asking for help in locating my family and friends in China but they are just giving me empty words.
Elkun said he arrived in London when he was nearly 30 years old, “an ambitious young man full of optimism and hope for the future”.
“I wanted to defend and campaign for the rights of the Uighur people,” he added. “I expected that the situation of the Uighurs would change for the better, but year after year I only saw worse things happening to my people.
“Now I feel sad and depressed and can hardly sleep at night with worry. Why doesn’t anybody care?”
Elkun told HuffPost Chinese embassies keep a watchful eye on Uighurs living in foreign countries, and pressure governments to deport them back to China.
“They even blackmail students by holding their families hostage back in China. We can’t say that a particular country is safe for us. Even countries like Sweden have upheld orders for deportation,” he added.
“Uighurs have to keep an eye on their present country’s relationship with China; if the influence increases, so does the danger. Its like watching the news to check whether or not you’ll be safe every day.”
Chinese authorities have reportedly deployed hi-tech face-recognition cameras in Xianjang, and QR codes have been installed outside the houses belonging to Uighur Muslims.
“Women are being forced to marry Han Chinese. At any time, Uighurs can be stopped by police and sent to the camps,” Elkun said.
China still sits as a permanent member of United Nations, and denies the alleged atrocities, while simultaneously stopping the UN from conducting a free investigation in the region.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office said the department believed reports of re-education camps, mass surveillance and restrictions on Uighurs and other minorities were “credible”, along with allegations of Uighurs abroad being returned to China involuntarily.
“The revision by the Chinese authorities of the ‘Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Regulation on De-extremification’ highlights the deteriorating human rights situation in Xinjiang,” the spokesman added.
“These revisions run counter to the recommendations provided by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which call on China to change its policy in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
“In this context, the EU expects China to respect freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression, as well as the rights of persons belonging to ethnic or national minorities, as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory.”