Twenty-two countries, including Australia, Canada and Japan, as well as the UK, France, Germany, and Switzerland, have called on China to immediately halt its mass detention of at least 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, located in the country’s western fringe.

The Chinese Communist Party has described as the forced re-education camps as “help centres” that Beijing set up to stamp out extremism and give people new skills.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking, Sunni Muslim ethnic group who are the indigenous population of Xinjiang, or East Turkestan. Though a minority in their own native region, the Uyghur population in Xinjiang is believed to be more than 12 million-strong.

The Communist Party has recognised the Uyghurs as natives of Xinjiang, but has ruthlessly cracked down on their civil liberties in recent years as China’s hardline president, Xi Jinping, has moved to cut off the Uyghurs from their ethnic, religious, and cultural kin in neighbouring Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan by implementing a forced Sinofication of the region that is similar to Beijing’s attempt a generation ago to stamp out Tibetan identity within the People’s Republic of China.

Since Beijing launched its campaign against the Uyghurs in 2014, at least 120,000 members of the community have been detained in re-education camps that are reportedly designed to alter the political thinking of the detainees – particularly targeting those who advocate declaring independence from China in favour of establishing an East Turkestan republic; their cultural identities and their religious beliefs via indoctrination and, according to some Western media reports, torture.

In a letter endorsed by the ambassadors of the 22 countries who voiced their opposition to China’s policy towards the Uyghurs, they cited reports of unlawful detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities living in or native to Xinjiang, saying,  “We call on China to uphold its national laws and international obligations and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief in Xinjiang and across China.”

In response, the Chinese Communist Party is preparing its own letter that will reportedly be addressed to critics in the international community and will refute claims that the Uyghurs are being mistreated.