Uncertainty in the Uyghur Diaspora: A Brother and Sisters Tale
By: Sarah Khalbuss, THO Non-Resident Fellow
“Hello, daughter. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to an [internment] camp. Don’t write to me.”
On October 19, 2017, Gulmira* received this chilling text message from her mother. Her worst fear had come to pass. By the time Gulmira received this message, mass internment of the Uyghur minority in China had been intensifying since August 2016, and any Uyghur Chinese citizen who had travelled abroad was especially at risk. Her mother’s alleged crime? It was never really mentioned, Gulmira insists. It was clear to her that her mother’s two visits to see her in Turkey were the likely causes of this sudden horror. Gulmira’s mother has been in an internment camp for a year now with no communication since.
This is too often the story of Uyghurs living abroad. Back in Gulmira’s hometown in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which is the largest Chinese province by area and borders six other countries, persecution of the Uyghur minority is growing. Since Xinjiang became an autonomous region in 1949, Beijing has encouraged its Han ethnic majority to migrate West. According to many among Xinjiang’s indigenous Uyghur population, Han Chinese people disproportionately have access to economic opportunities while the Uyghur majority face high rates of unemployment. Furthermore, Uyghur language instruction and Islamic religious practice are heavily restricted. In recent years, internment has become more common; more than one million Uyghur citizens have been reportedly forced into so-called “reeducation centers,” which Beijing claims are designed as a prevention measure to curb the influence of Islamic extremism in Xinjiang.
Members of the Uyghur diaspora may have escaped the heavy police presence and threats of detainment they lived with at home, but they still face a great deal of uncertainty about their families’ lives and even their own. When Gulmira’s brother Mehmet, a PhD student studying in the US, visited his family in Xinjiang during break, he was detained for 27 days without any outside communication or knowledge of his whereabouts. Despite warnings from his mother to not visit home, he felt his status as a student in the US and his lack of travel to Muslim majority countries would mean he could come home safely. After he was released, his passport was kept by authorities for three months. He was firmly told to “never return and for my sister [Gulmira, living in Turkey] to also never come back or else she faces serious jail time.”
Since the 1990s, Turkey has been known as a safe haven for Uyghurs seeking asylum abroad. Uyghurs are a Turkic and predominantly Muslim minority, and have been welcomed by Turks and the Turkish government, receiving Turkish citizenship and passports. For Uyghurs, Turkey “feels and looks like home,” Mehmet explained, and Turkish culture (through popular Turkish television series and music) is greatly consumed and enjoyed in Xinjiang. There are instances of open support for the ethnic minority by the Turkish government. In 2009, for example, then-Prime Minister Erdogan openly denounced China for their treatment of Uyghurs, a stance that was criticized harshly by Chinese state media. The Turkish public have historically had strong reactions to reports of anti-Uyghur discrimination in China — for instance when 2015 reports alleged that Uyghurs were banned from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan — and have responded with regular pro-Uyghur protests outside of the Chinese Embassy in Ankara.
More recently, though, just as the number of Uyghurs in internment is rising, the Turkish government has been noticeably silent. In the wake of Turkey’s recent economic crisis, Turkey is turning away from the US and towards China. Beijing has made it clear in state media that they are ready to support Turkey through investments, lending, and support in infrastructure projects, but warned that Turkey should avoid making any more “irresponsible remarks on the ethnic policy in Xinjiang.” China’s large scale infrastructure project to create a new Silk Road through the “One Belt, One Road” initiative will heavily involve Turkey and has the potential to bring in millions of dollars of investment. Erdogan showed how keen Turkey is to cooperate on OBOR in May 2017 where he claimed that the initiative would help put an end to terrorism. China is further building up banking and trading activity in the entire region, so as certain Middle Eastern countries turn away from the dollar, Chinese yuan currency will begin to replace the dollar for lending and trading.
For Uyghurs living in Turkey, the uncertainty about their fates is rising. Gulmira, like most Uyghurs, is eligible for long term residency, but she reports that some Uyghurs are facing bureaucratic troubles in their application processes. Furthermore, as with many others living in Turkey, Gulmira’s passport will expire soon and her chance of being issued a new Chinese passport from the consulate in Istanbul are uncertain. Gulmira reports that she hears that most Uyghur are refused a new Chinese passport but can be issued a special travel document for one entry, back to China. If she can not get a new passport, she will become officially stateless. She knows that going back home is not an option, but her future restricted movement is just one part of the overwhelming uncertainty this community faces. Whether Turkey will issue Turkish citizenship and passports to Uyghurs , as they used to, is still unclear.
Gulmira’s brother Mehmet feels his sister’s uncertainty growing. He has recently come to Turkey to focus on writing and to be closer to his sister. He says that Uyghurs in Turkey are “unsure of their destiny in 1 or 2 years. Historically, Turkey has been generous in giving citizenship and residency but this has been stopped. People are feeling stuck in Turkey. Obviously, they can’t go back. Are they going to be given citizenship or are they going somewhere else?”
This year, the United States has strongly denounced China’s treatment of Uyghurs in multiple instances, even considering sanctions on seven Chinese officials involved in Uyghur repression, after a group of lawmakers recommended action to US Secretary of State Mark Pompeo. In May, American representatives openly criticized China for preventing an exiled Uyghur activist Dolkun Isafrom speaking at an UN indigenous rights conference in New York. The Chinese mission had him escorted out. In August, the US mission to the United Nations tweeted that it was “deeply troubled by reports of an ongoing crackdown on Uighurs and other Muslims in China. We call on China to end their counterproductive policies and free all of those who have been arbitrarily detained.”
Mehmet feels a great deal of appreciation towards the United States for its sustained interest in the Uyghur cause. He feels a new sense of hope in having American support and feels that continued pressure and organizing could make an impact on China’s policies. Mehmet truly believes that the US has the power and influence to impact the situation. Some Uyghurs are still holding out hope that Turkey will stand strong on this issue and defend Uyghurs when the time is right. If Turkey resolves to again denounce Beijing’s actions, this could represent a key policy for US-Turkey cooperation on a shared human rights interest. For now, Mehmet and Gulmira, like so many members of the Uyghur diaspora, are still patiently waiting for their mother’s release. “Everyone is feeling so unhappy and afraid,” Gulmira sighs. “I just hope the situation changes.”