Turkey No Longer a Safe Haven for Chinese Uighurs

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Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images

Protesters chant slogans and hold up flags in solidarity with Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs in Istanbul on July 12

On a humid afternoon in a quiet Istanbul suburb, Abdullah, a pint-sized, bright-eyed octogenarian, presides over a chaotic household. Over a dozen Turkish Uighurs have gathered to welcome his distant cousin and family who have fled China's Xinjiang province after the recent communal violence. Fearing retribution from the Chinese authorities, he insists on using only his first name. The dining room's table is laden with Uighur specialities — steamed dumplings, sesame-encrusted flatbreads, pastries stuffed with cheese and dates. "This isn't our homeland," Abdullah says, leaning on a mahogany cane, "but Turkey is our home. We are comfortable here." He fumbles for the Turkish ID card he carries in his shirt pocket and points to his place of birth: Xinjiang. Abdullah received Turkish citizenship almost instantly when he first arrived, via Afghanistan, in 1981.

Turkey once had an open-door policy toward its Uighur brethren, the Turkic ethnic minority who began arriving in waves from China from the late 1930s. In 1952, for instance, when several thousand Uighurs fled China's communist regime into Pakistan, the Turkish government stepped in and brought 1,850 people overland to Turkey. The new arrivals were settled in purpose-built housing — called the New Quarter — in the city of Kayseri in central Anatolia, and were given jobs and citizenship.

Such a welcome, however, is unimaginable today.

Even though public sympathy still runs strong for the long-suffering Uighur population of what many Turks refer to as East Turkestan, Ankara has become increasingly wary of antagonizing Beijing. Just last month, President Abdullah Gul visited China and oversaw the signing of $1.5 billion in Turkey-China business contracts. After the recent violence in Urumqi, one minister called for a boycott of Chinese goods, but that was quickly retracted; Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan labeled events there "tantamount to genocide," but his outburst was soon smoothed over by apologetic Foreign Ministry officials.

"It's a dilemma for Turkey," says Hugh Pope, author of Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World. "On one hand, there is a bond. [Uighurs] are Turks. You can fly east from Istanbul, get off the plane and make conversation to some degree. On the other hand, most of the official reaction was domestic political grandstanding. You don't get the impression that the Prime Minister cares as much about Xinjiang as he does, say, about Gaza." (Erdogan had a high-profile clash with Israel's President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos last February when he sharply condemned Israel's military offensive in the Palestinian enclave.)

Turkey's ability to strike a balance between its ties with the Uighurs and with Beijing may soon be further tested if Rebiya Kadeer, the fiery Washington-based Uighur leader, decides to take up Erdogan's offer of a visa to visit Turkey. Her previous requests to visit were denied under pressure from Beijing, which accuses her of fomenting the current outbreak of violence. Chinese officials have warned Turkey against allowing Kadeer to visit.

For Uighur refugees like Abdullah's newly arrived relative Mahmut, a 39-year-old construction worker, and his preschool teacher wife and daughters, the reluctance of Turkey and the Central Asian countries that border Xinjiang to jeopardize their relations with China could make for a difficult and lonely future.

Today, a few hundred Uighurs trickle into Turkey each year, and they can apply to the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for refugee status, but are treated no differently than an Iraqi or a Sudanese. They wait months to be processed and, if approved, are given temporary travel papers and sent on to receptive third countries such as Canada or the Netherlands. "Turkey used to have a law which allowed Turkic people like the Uighurs to be treated like migrants, instead of immigrants, but that has changed," says the UNHCR's Metin Corabatir.

Individuals with relatives living in Turkey can sometimes win residency status, but there are no guarantees. Mahmut was trying to get there years before the latest outbreak of violence in Xinjiang. He waited two years to be issued a Chinese passport, he says, because he is Uighur. He was also required to provide two guarantors to vouch that his family would return to China. "If you don't come back, you know those two people will get in trouble," he says. "But it's a risk we had to take. The pressure keeps increasing on us Uighurs and I didn't want the girls brought up living in fear." Getting a Turkish visa took several more months. After the riots, Mahmut paid people to get his family past security checkpoints to the airport.

He hopes to eventually end up in Europe, even though he has family in Istanbul. "It is hard for us to get permission to stay here. It's not like it used to be," he says. "But there is no going back now." He mimics a knife slitting his throat and says "Han Chinese." There is silence in the room, then the children — dressed in brightly colored batik print dresses — burst out laughing and begin imitating his motion. Mahmut smiles slowly. For a brief moment, this is just another family reunion.