Turkey’s Uighur exiles raise voices against China amid Erdogan’s silence

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Originally published by La Prensa Latina Media on February 11, 2021

Istanbul, Feb 11 (efe-epa).- The 50,000-strong community of exiled Uighurs in Istanbul have in recent weeks stepped up their protests against the alleged repression by Beijing of their people in their western Chinese homeland of Xinjiang, amid fears that Turkish authorities’ traditional support for the ethnic minority may be waning.

The predominantly Muslim Turkic ethnic minority number roughly 12 million in Xinjiang but tens of thousands have gone into exile in the last decade.

Every week, dozens of Uighur activists gather outside the Chinese consulate in the Turkish capital, demanding to know the whereabouts of missing family members interned in what Beijing calls re-education centers.

“There’s not a single Uighur who doesn’t have a family member in a Chinese concentration camp,” says Habibullah, the owner of an Istanbul shop that sells products from East Turkestan, as many Uighurs refer to China’s western Xinjiang province.

The activists have long-sought to deliver a file containing some 5,000 reports of disappearances but it has been to no avail.

Abdullah Rasul, a 36-year-old Uighur from the city of Turpan, located to the southeast of Xinjiang’s regional capital Urumqi, tells Efe that his mother, older sister, brother and his wife are being held at the centers. He has lived in Turkey since 2015. Like many others at the protest, Rasul holds aloft a placard with photos of his missing relatives.

Several international organizations, including China Human Rights Defenders and a United Nations human rights panel, estimate that a million Uighurs are being held in the camps, which saw a massive surge inmates following a string of Islamist and separatist attacks between 2011 and 2016.

But Kamuran Kizlak, a Turkish journalist in China with knowledge of the area, told Efe that these estimations were wildly inaccurate – he claims there have never been more than 15,000 people in the centers – and that they were designed to help disadvantaged sectors of the population avoid radicalization, echoing Beijing’s official line.

Chinese authorities have made efforts to counter Rasul’s claims. In December last year, state TV broadcast an interview with the cousin of Rasul’s wife, in which she declared she had not disappeared and was content with her life working as a waitress in Turpan.

It’s common to hear stories of persecuted families among Istanbul’s Uighur community.

Previous Turkish governments have been vocally supportive of China’s Uighur population but current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been notably quiet on the matter amid efforts to pursue closer relations with Beijing.

A new treaty between China and Turkey that could see Ankara deport Uighur activists is the latest cause for concern in the community.

“We believe that the Turkish government is not going to send us, but we do not trust the Chinese government nor their tactics,” Rasul says.EFE


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