ALMATY -- Kazakhstan is easing the immigration process for ethnic Kazakhs seeking to move to their ancestral homeland from China, where the regime faces ongoing international criticism for its persecution of Muslims in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region.
On May 13, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed amendments to the law on migration that changed the term "Oralman" (returnee) to "kandas" (native, blood related).
Oralmans are ethnic Kazakhs from nearby countries who immigrated to Kazakhstan.
From now on, ethnic Kazakhs who are not Kazakh citizens may take advantage of simpler criteria for receiving permanent residency in Kazakhstan and gaining Kazakh citizenship.
In addition, the new law aims to satisfy the needs of the country's economy, create a favourable investment climate and use cutting-edge international experience in managing migration.
This initiative has been under discussion in Kazakhstan for several years.
"As I have said in the past, we must stop using the word 'Oralman' to refer to Kazakhs returning to their ancestral homeland and instead use the term 'kandas'," Tokayev tweeted last September 19.
Last November, Tokayev announced that more than 1 million ethnic Kazakhs had moved to Kazakhstan since 1991.
"I've disliked the term 'Oralman' for a long time -- we're talking about our fellow Kazakhs," said Bulat Abilov, a businessman and political figure, in February at a ceremony in Kapchagay where needy residents received gifts.
"It just so happens that the way history played out, they've been living in other countries. Now I'm pleased that the term 'Oralman' has been replaced by 'kandas'," he said.
Society is perceiving the reform as a gesture to raise the status of Kazakhs living abroad, especially those who are immigrating to their ancestral homeland from China.
In recent years, the issue of ethnic Kazakhs moving to Kazakhstan from China has received constant attention from the media and the public. Ethnic Kazakhs in China have sought support in Nur-Sultan, given that they are subject to regular persecution by the Chinese authorities.
While the confinement of Muslims in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region in re-education camps has been the main issue under scrutiny, a new problem has arisen in the last year: forced labour.
Last July, Aman Jandybai, 35, moved to Turkistan, a city in southern Kazakhstan, from Xinjiang.
He said that in 2018 he was released from a re-education camp, where he had spent eight months. Then, Chinese authorities immediately forced him to work in a factory that made cell phones.
"I was paid peanuts, but I couldn't leave," said Jandybai. "The police beat me and threatened me, saying that I'd land in prison where I could be beaten to death."
A few months later Jandybai broke his arm and received permission to leave the job.
"I remember all of this like a nightmare," he said.
The Chinese government and Chinese businesses colluded, said Serikjan Bilash, a human rights activist in Almaty who also moved to Kazakhstan from China.
"When the factories started to experience a shortage of unskilled labour, the authorities began to 'supply' them with people released from political camps -- members of Turkic-speaking ethnic minorities, whom they literally exploited and enslaved," Bilash said.
Chinese authorities do not consider Kazakhs, Kyrgyz or Uighurs, who are suspected of "lacking patriotism", as full-fledged citizens with rights, he said.
The Kazakh public is outraged over the persecution of ethnic minorities in China, including ethnic Kazakhs who are compelled to look for help in their ancestral homeland, said Bilash.
The global community has condemned the systematic human-rights abuses in China.
The US Senate passed a bill imposing sanctions on the Chinese regime in response to its persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)'s Kazakh service reported May 14.
"The bill will allow [if enacted] for imposing sanctions on high-ranking officials in the Chinese government in response to the persecution of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other native populations of Xinjiang, mainly Muslims, and for placing a series of export restrictions on goods used to suppress human rights," according to RFE/RL.
The bill was "an important step in countering the totalitarian Chinese government's widespread and horrific human rights abuses", said Senator James Risch, chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to Reuters.
In 2019, anti-Beijing sentiment surged in Kazakhstan. It became evident in regular demonstrations and clashes between local and Chinese workers.
Last September, anti-Beijing demonstrations took place in Zhanaozen. About 500 participants turned out on the central square, where they chanted slogans denouncing the Chinese regime. Many of the attendees came from other Kazakh cities.
Later that same month, Zhanaozen residents staged another rally. The demonstrators were protesting the construction of Chinese factories in Kazakhstan and, more broadly, close economic co-operation with China that they consider harmful to Kazakhstan.