Chinese pressure upends Uighur refuge in Turkey

by Fulya OZERKAN / AFP

ISTANBUL – After 20 years in a Chinese prison, Abdullah Abdulrahman (picture) joined 50,000 other Uighurs and fled to Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had once railed against “genocide” in Xinjiang.

But Turkey is increasingly dependent on Chinese investments and coronavirus vaccines, and the 46-year-old fears being sent back to a region where China has detained at least one million people in “political education” camps.

Abdulrahman’s anxiety is aggravated by the Chinese parliament’s recent ratification of an extradition agreement with Turkey.

Turkish lawmakers are yet to debate the treaty but Uighurs already complain of escalating police raids on their homes, forcing some to once again pack up their belongings and seek sanctuary in Europe.

“We are no longer safe here,” said Abdulrahman, who has been taking part in protests outside the Chinese consulate in Istanbul for the past two months.

“If Turkey sends me back, the Chinese would not leave me alive,” he told AFP. “We are scared of expulsion.”

‘China’s pressure’

Jailed in China in the 1990s over anti-Beijing protests, Abdulrahman reached Turkey in 2014 after a months-long trek that took him to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia.

Members of Uighur minority demonstrate near the Chinese consulate in Istanbul

Once in Istanbul, he found peace among one of the world’s largest Uighur diasporas, benefitting from the same Turkic language and familiar with many customs thanks to generations of cultural ties.

But since 2018, his life has been upended by a wave of interrogations over suspected links to Islamic State militants — the same extremist ties he was accused of harbouring in China.

He has spent a year at a deportation centre in the western province of Aydin and 40 more days in Mugla in the southwest.

Although acquitted in court, Abdulrahman has been denied a residence permit, which he needs to go to the hospital, use public transport or open a bank account.

“Many others like me are denied papers because of China’s pressure,” he said. 

“We ran away from China and pinned our hopes on Turkey. If Turkey sends us back, nobody will stand up for us except for Allah.”

‘Vaccine card’

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has sought to dispel fears of imminent deportations, saying the extradition treaty’s ratification in Ankara would not mean “Turkey will release Uighurs to China”.

Turkey is increasingly dependent on Chinese investments and coronavirus vaccines

Yet news reports already accuse Turkey of covertly returning Uighurs to China via third countries, including ex-Soviet Tajikistan.

Erdogan, who has championed Muslim causes across the world during his 18-year rule, has said little of late about the Uighurs — a contrast to his 2009 condemnation of their “genocide” in China.

His silence also stands out against a chorus of Western outrage at new accounts of mass rape, torture and forced sterilisation of women in the Chinese camps.

After initially denying their existence, China now says the camps are vocational training centres aimed at reducing the appeal of Islamist extremism.

Uighur rights advocate Seyit Tumturk said China was leveraging vaccine diplomacy and exploiting an erosion in Turkey’s ties with the West “to boost its clout”.

“China is using the vaccine card to silence the Uighurs in Turkey,” said Tumturk, who heads the East Turkestan National Assembly, a Uighur rights group.

Fleeing to Europe

Tumturk said the exodus of Uighurs from Turkey had already started.

Uighurs complain of escalating police raids on their homes, forcing some to once again pack up their belongings and seek sanctuary in Europe

“Up to 3,000 Uighurs have fled to Europe over the last couple of years,” he said. “High-level ties with China have put tremendous pressure on the Uighurs in Turkey.” 

Obul Tevekkul, 47, an estate agent in the Sefakoy district of Istanbul where many Uighurs have settled, said he felt like his community was turning into a “political tool”.

Turkey is relying almost exclusively on China’s Sinovac in its Covid vaccination effort, buying up tens of millions doses, and has a key currency swap arrangement with Beijing that supports Ankara’s under-pressure central bank.

“These commercial and political agreements (on vaccines and extradition) with China are disappointing,” the 47-year-old said. 

Semsinur Gafur, 48, agreed, urging Erdogan to find his voice and once again support his fellow Muslims.

“We expect the Turkish leader, who champions the rights of the Muslims, to (stand up to) China,” Gafur said.