Beijing (CNN)Thousands of Uyghur Muslims are currently being detained in cramped conditions at so-called political education camps in China's restive far-western region of Xinjiang -- and the trend shows no sign of abating, exiled Uyghur activists and human rights advocacy groups say.
Thousands of Uyghur Muslims detained in Chinese 'political education' camps
"Every household, every family had three or four people taken away," said Omer Kanat, executive committee chairman of the World Uyghur Congress, an umbrella group for the Uyghur diaspora.
"In some villages, you can't see men on the streets anymore -- only women and children -- all the men have been sent to the camps."
One recent news report put the number of Uyghurs confined at 120,000 in "overcrowded and squalid" conditions in just one prefecture in southern Xinjiang. Radio Free Asia, a US Congress-funded station known for its extensive Uyghur reporting, attributed the figure to an anonymous security official in Kashgar.
Tensions have remained high in Xinjiang -- a resource-rich area long inhabited by the Turkic-speaking ethnic Uyghurs -- following a spate of violent attacks in recent years. The Chinese authorities have blamed the incidents on Muslim Uyghur separatists seeking to establish an independent state.
While activists CNN spoke to couldn't confirm the figure reported by RFA, they say it fits with the increasingly bleak picture for the 10 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, where the government has been waging unrelenting campaigns against what it calls the forces of "terrorism, separatism and religious extremism."
Kanat and other human rights advocates describe, citing sources on the ground, how people supposedly prone to influences of Islamic extremism undergo a "brainwashing" process inside the detention camps -- often housed in converted schools or government buildings.
Detainees are required to praise the ruling Communist Party, sing revolutionary songs, learn to speak Mandarin, study the thought of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and confess perceived transgressions such as praying at a mosque or traveling abroad, according to activists.
"It's completely unlawful -- the authorities provide no legal documentation to the families and there are no time limits (on the length of detention)," said Maya Wang, Hong Kong-based senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, which published a detailed report on the subject last September and called on Beijing to free all detainees.
"There's a lot of fear, with people losing contact with loved ones."
Xinjiang authorities have not responded to CNN's repeated requests for information