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A worker packages spools of cotton yarn at a textile manufacturing plant in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on April 20, 2021.Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press

Uyghur Canadians are urging Parliament to strengthen proposed legislation so that it bans imports from China’s western Xinjiang region, where Chinese authorities have established mass detention camps and forced Uyghurs and members of other Muslim groups to work in factories and on farms.

The United States has already erected tough barriers to imports from Xinjiang. According to Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, an international advocacy group, this has resulted in China sending goods made with forced labour to Canada, instead. He said he suspects Chinese exporters are in some cases shipping goods here and then quietly moving them over the U.S. border, to avoid the American restrictions.

In a letter to MPs on the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, an Ottawa-based group, said the current legislation before MPs is “very weak” and needs to be improved. The law, already passed by the Senate, would require Canadian companies to report on what steps they’ve taken to identify the use of forced labour in their supply chains.

“Simply put, a law that requires you to report on but not stop the harm you are causing is meaningless. Canada must enact legislation that would require companies to change their behaviour, and not just report on it,” says the letter, which was provided to The Globe and Mail.

Tirana Hassan: The UN needs to address China’s abuse of Uyghurs, without further delay

Specifically, the group wants the legislation to block imports of products made in Xinjiang. And it wants Ottawa to train Canada Border Services Agency officers to identify products made with forced labour.

“There are a lot of products, from textiles, to tomato paste, to electronics on our store shelves – and most are made in China from forced labour,” said Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project executive director Mehmet Tohti. “Canada is a dumping ground for these goods, and that is really troubling.”

Canada has been unwilling to go as far as the U.S. in restricting trade with Xinjiang.

Ottawa is obligated to bar imports of goods produced with forced labour, under the terms of a commitment made in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade, the pact that replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement. In keeping with that obligation, Ottawa amended the Customs Tariff Act on July 1, 2020, to prohibit those imports.

But Canada’s border guards have not seized a single shipment of goods made with forced labour in the more than two years since then. And the ban does not specifically target Xinjiang – even though the federal government has imposed sanctions on the region and requires importers doing business there to sign declarations that they are not knowingly sourcing from suppliers guilty of human rights violations. Parliament has also adopted a motion that accuses China of genocide against its Uyghur minority.

A shipment of women’s and children’s clothing from China was impounded by Canadian authorities in Quebec last year, on suspicion that the items had been made with forced labour. But the shipment was later released after the importer successfully challenged the seizure.

Mr. Isa said Canada’s was the first parliament in the world to officially condemn China’s repression of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities and call it a genocide. But he said Ottawa has failed to follow through with effective action. “The government is not doing a good enough job.”

Just last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government touted the forced-labour ban as part of its effort to address human-rights abuses in Xinjiang. Canada’s failure to identify and seize any goods made with forced labour since then stands in stark contrast with the U.S. government’s record.

“More than 3,000 shipments have stopped since the U.S. law went into effect in June, 2021,” Mr. Tohti said.

The Xinjiang region produces a fifth of the world’s cotton and close to half of the global supply of the silicon material used to make solar panels.

Rights groups and media reports say the Chinese government has committed grave human-rights violations against the region’s largely Muslim Uyghur population, as well as other minorities. Forced labour and forced relocation to work in other provinces, China’s critics say, is the latest stage in a government-directed effort to exert control in Xinjiang. Beijing has described the region as being infected with extremism.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, visited Xinjiang this year, and her office’s report from late August says China has committed “serious human rights violations” against Uyghur Muslims in the region, which may amount to crimes against humanity.

The report does not describe China’s conduct as genocide, but it details “allegations of torture, sexual violence, ill-treatment, forced medical treatment, as well as forced labour and reports of deaths in custody.” It also discusses a decline in birth rates in Xinjiang between 2017 and 2019 of more than 48.5 per cent: from 15.88 per thousand people in 2017 to 8.14 per thousand in 2019.

Media reports from The Associated Press and other outlets have detailed how China has forced intrauterine devices, sterilization and even abortion on Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

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