President Erdoğan discusses Uyghurs with his Chinese counterpart in phone call

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in a phone call on Tuesday that it’s important to Turkey that Uyghur Muslims live in peace as “equal citizens of China” but said his country respects China’s national sovereignty, according to a statement by the Turkish presidency.

“Highlighting the importance of the Uyghur Turks living in prosperity, freedom and peace as equal citizens of China, President Erdoğan voiced Turkey’s respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the statement said.

Two leaders also discussed bilateral relations in areas including energy, trade, transportation and health.

China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities has drawn international condemnation, with human rights groups estimating that some 1 million Uyghurs have been arbitrarily incarcerated in a network of prison camps in Xinjiang. There have also been reports of forced sterilization, systematic torture and rape.

Beijing denies all allegations of abuse of Uyghurs and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.

Turkey has been a destination for thousands of Uyghurs fleeing China and home to a sizable Uyghur diaspora. But a Turkey-China extradition treaty signed in 2017 that is still awaiting ratification by the Turkish parliament led to fears that it could be used to target Uyghurs in Turkey.

An estimated 50,000 Uyghurs are currently living in Turkey, making it the largest Uyghur diaspora in the world.

The Uyghurs have sought refuge in Turkey because of their shared cultural ties. Turkey, however, has become less vocal about the plight of the Uyghurs in recent years as it has developed economic ties with China.

Turkey was recently absent from signatories of a cross-regional joint statement urging China to allow the immediate access of UN experts and independent observers to Xinjiang.

Uyghurs in Turkey not only worry about their families but also fear for their own safety now that China has ratified the extradition treaty.

According to a recent report published by the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, Turkey increased renditions, detentions and surveillance of its Uyghur population and is no longer the safe haven it once was for Uyghur refugees,

Citing a report by National Public Radio (NPR), headquartered in Washington, D.C., the study said between 200 and 400 Uyghurs were detained in Turkey in 2019 alone.

Yet Turkey is accused of covertly returning Uyghurs to China via third countries as well. According to the report, in August 2019 Turkey deported a Uyghur woman and her two children to Tajikistan, from where the family was then transferred to China. There were reportedly five or six other Uyghurs aboard the flight with her.

In March a motion calling the Chinese treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority in northwestern Xinjiang province “genocide” was voted down by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The Turkish government’s Uyghur policy is widely criticized by its citizens and rights organizations. Fully 53.2 percent of Turks think the government hasn’t given an “appropriate response” to the Chinese treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority in northwestern Xinjiang province, according to a survey conducted by MetroPOLL.

In May 73 bar associations across Turkey called on the UN and the international community to initiate targeted sanctions against China in order to stop its treatment of the “Uyghurs of East Turkestan.”

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