After 20 years in a Chinese prison, Abdullah Abdulrahman joined 50,000 other Uyghurs and fled to Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 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 Uyghurs 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 İstanbul 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.”
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.
Once in İstanbul, he found peace among one of the world’s largest Uyghur 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 harboring in China.
He has spent a year at a deportation center in the western province of Aydın and 40 more days in Muğla 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.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has sought to dispel fears of imminent deportations, saying the extradition treaty’s ratification in Ankara would not mean “Turkey will release Uyghurs to China.”
Yet news reports already accuse Turkey of covertly returning Uyghurs to China via third countries, including ex-Soviet Tajikistan.
Erdoğan, who has championed Muslim causes across the world during his 18-year rule, has said little of late about the Uyghurs — 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 sterilization of women in the Chinese camps.
After initially denying their existence, China now says the camps are vocational training centers aimed at reducing the appeal of Islamist extremism.
Uyghur rights advocate Seyit Tümtürk 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 Uyghurs in Turkey,” said Tümtürk, who heads the East Turkestan National Assembly, a Uyghur rights group.
Fleeing to Europe
Tümtürk said the exodus of Uyghurs from Turkey had already started.
“Up to 3,000 Uyghurs have fled to Europe over the last couple of years,” he said. “High-level ties with China have put tremendous pressure on the Uyghurs in Turkey.”
Obul Tevekkül, 47, an estate agent in the Sefaköy district of İstanbul where many Uyghurs 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.
Şemsinur Gafur, 48, agreed, urging Erdoğan 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.