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International Law News

International Law News, Spring 2021

Lawyers in Refuge


  • Many Uyghurs have become silenced by what has been going on in Xinjiang for fear of reprisals against them and their families by the Chinese Community Party.
  • The International Refugee Law committee talks with Uyghur activist and lawyer Maira Aisa.
  • Maira Aisa is a Specialist in Housing Law and has worked for the last five years for the Local Authority in Homelessness Department in the United Kingdom.
Lawyers in Refuge
Eastimages via Getty Images

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In September 2020 the Trump Administration began taking steps to ban products that were alleged to be made utilizing forced labor in what is commonly referred to as the Xinjiang region of China. The administration ratcheted the ban up to include more products, like cotton, from the region where evidence continues to show persecution of the Uyghur people. The Uyghur people are an ancient people who have resided in and around the area they commonly refer to as East Turkestan but the People’s Republic of China refer to the areas as Xinjiang. Many Uyghurs have become silenced by what has been going on in Xinjiang for fear of reprisals against them and family members by the Chinese Community Party.

The International Refugee Law committee sits down with Maira Aisa for this issue. Maira Aisa is a Uyghur activist, lawyer and active member of the UK Uygur Community. Maira is a Specialist in Housing Law and has worked for the last 5 years for the Local Authority in Homelessness Department in the United Kingdom.

What caused you to leave home?

I am an Uyghur - a child of a refugee who fled China, Xinjiang in 1955 at age of six and has never gone back to the homeland. I was born and grew up in one of the post-Soviet Union countries. I studied civil law as well as election law and my graduate work was written on Tribunal Courts as part of the legal system. I graduated from the University of Law (Uni) with a “red diploma” with the highest score in every module and assignments. However, I did not feel that my diploma was useful, although it was red, as in my third year in University I started facing obstacles. The law firm I was assigned to gave me the impression that since I was not a native, as a Uyghur I would end up doing every office job rather being a successful Lawyer with a growing career. There was no way to escape those evil eyes and gossips on everything I was doing. It gave me so much pressure and fear that kept me always under stress and thought to fail at any points.

The Law market is a very competitive market everywhere in the world and always the best win. Unfortunately, I always was considered for places with much work and less salary and it had been simply connected to my roots and connections. As I did not have a father, brother, or uncle working in the parliament or hold a high-ranking position to say a word or be a referee for me to get a better job. I could understand this tribalism that the system allowed to happen or I needed to be rich to “give in the paw” to be able to get a seat in a good and respective firm. My red diploma never counted. By the time I had my last module to complete and submit my graduated work; I had a visa to leave the country. I felt desperate. Many Asian countries have the same law structures, the attitude to tribalism. In China, I have no idea what their legal system is but I definitely know that a lawyer of Uyghur origin cannot succeed.

Since the crackdown has been announced in Xinjiang many professionals including famous lawyers, legal firms belonging to Uyghurs were closed or passed to Chinese officials. Many lawyers have been downgraded and given limited capacity of work. I mean those who are not in concentration camps or somehow managed to stay alive. Unfortunately, their status may change in a moment to what the communist party officials want them to be. There also has been a migration reported on professionals to the mainland of China and used as slaves. Uyghur colleagues have reported that they have limited connection to their families. Further that their brothers or sisters who work as teachers, bankers, and lawyers had been sent from one place to another in a region for a qualification update. Once, and if they are lucky to be back, they never go back to their previous jobs and they have been qualified to do less paid and dirty jobs. Uyghurs lawyers in exile have the opposite life and opportunities to grow and professionally build their career. However, since the Chinese Communist Party’s atrocities towards the Uyghurs increased and have been severely affecting the community inside Xinjiang and abroad, many Uyghurs lawyers have become human rights activists and have been fighting for every single Uyghur soul left back home in hell.

What inspired you to become a lawyer?

From age of 12 I attended classes in Secondary school relating to very basic law (more rules) in our everyday life. I loved the point that law is a set of rules applied in life, however, I was sure that it also shapes a person's character, personality and way of thinking. I started watching documentaries of great lawyers and their achievements. How they were presenting their defenses in courts. I was attracted to the legal language, the speeches and the way lawyers presented themselves.

What do you currently do and how do you use law in the work you currently do?

I have been working in a Local Authority in the Housing Department in the United Kingdom since 2015 and dealing with homeless cases. Housing Law is my guidance in every step and actions I am taking on each case. At the very beginning I have to make a decision under what section of the housing law I am accepting the case. For instance, if a client is homeless is one section or if they are threatened with homelessness is another. There are several Sections I must apply if the client has priority needs or not, if the client is in need of interim accommodation or not. If the client comes from another Local Authority and who is fleeing domestic abuse. Referrals made to other Local boroughs under the sections of a homelessness reduction act of Housing legislation. Case closures also to be confirmed under what section of legislation it has been done with clear reasons stated. Lastly, when I deal with complaints I always have to refer and reply in the legislation frame and address the comments accordingly to the housing law.

How can people connect with you regarding your work?

I use my legal background and skills to help with homelessness in the United Kingdom. My focus outside of the work is of course, regarding the people of my homeland. I am an active member of the UK Uyghur Community and I am in contact with the World Uyghur Congress ( I am excited to share that I am a member of the Preparatory Body of The Congress of Nations and States which is an international movement dedicated to realizing international rights that have been promised to indigenous peoples such as the Uyghurs and creating concrete steps to making that a reality now and together.

This series by the International Refugee Law Committee interviews lawyers who have fled their home countries due to violence and persecution.