Turkey increased renditions, detentions and surveillance of its Uyghur population and is no longer the safe haven it once was for Uyghur refugees, according to a recent report published by the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that Turkey is no longer the safe haven it once was for refugees from the Uyghur Region,” the study said. “Our data indicates that Turkey has detained or rendered an increasing number of people since 2017.”
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.
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 living 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.
According to the report, Uyghurs in Turkey are expressing growing concern that China is providing the country with COVID-19 vaccines in exchange for the ratification of the extradition treaty. On December 26, 2020 the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Congress suddenly ratified the 2017 accord, leading to speculation that the Turkish parliament would be moving to put the agreement into law as well.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has sought to dispel fears of imminent deportations, saying the extradition treaty’s ratification in Ankara would not mean that “Turkey will release Uyghurs to China.”
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.
According to the study, in addition to increasing renditions, detentions and surveillance, Turkey in recent years has significantly softened its rhetorical support for the Uyghurs. In January, under the pretext of concerns about security and COVID-19, police banned protests in front of the Chinese Consulate General in İstanbul by Uyghurs living in Turkey trying to find information about missing family members. The move was more likely linked to fears of upsetting China. Another protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Ankara was promptly shut down, and its activists were detained after China accused the protesters of spreading fake news.
Soon after, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu warned protesters to “avoid falling prey to a planned international conflict that comes from beyond the ocean,” strongly implying that claims of mass repression in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are part of a political ploy in the great power competition between the United States and China.
In January Turkish TV stations cut off their broadcast of an opposition party meeting in the parliament after the party’s leader invited a Uyghur woman to speak about the persecution of Uyghur Turks by the Chinese government.
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.”