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No reason was given for the policy which is being seen as an attack on personal freedom

Xinjiang is home to about 10 million Uyghurs and around eight million Han Chinese

Beijing CNN  — 

Millions of residents in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region have been ordered to surrender their passports to local police, in a move rights groups say is an attack on personal freedom.

The order came from the Shihezi Public Security Bureau Immigration Office in Xinjiang on October 19, which said that passports would be held by police after an “annual check.”

Residents wishing to travel abroad would have to seek permission from local authorities, the statement said. Those who refuse could be barred from leaving the country.

Xinjiang is an ethnically divided and resource rich province that is home to around 10 million predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and around eight million Han Chinese.

No reason was given for the policy, however the World Uyghur Congress, a Germany-based rights group, said it was deliberate move to restrict the movements of the Uyghur population.

“Although the regulations ostensibly target all residents, Chinese authorities in the past have taken clear steps to limit mobility rights for the Uyghur community in particular,” the Congress said in a statement.

Terror attacks in China

China has blamed Uyghur separatists for a number of attacks in recent years, including one on a coalmine in September 2015, in which 50 people were killed.

But exiled groups and human rights activists say the government’s repressive religious policies and economic marginalization are provoking the unrest.

“Chinese authorities have given no credible reason for taking away people’s passports, violating their right to freedom of movement,” Sophie Richardson, China Director for Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

“Doing so across an entire region is a form of collective punishment and fuels resentment toward the government in a region where tensions are high.”