Since the 1950s, thousands of Uighurs fleeing persecution in China have found sanctuary in Turkey, where they share a common linguistic, cultural and religious heritage with the Turks. Some experts say the Uighur community there could be in jeopardy, though, after a recent agreement was reached between the two countries.
An estimated 50,000 Uighurs are believed to reside in Turkey, constituting the largest Uighur refugee community in the world.
Uighur diaspora activists cite a significant shift since December 26, however, when the Standing Committee of Chinese People's Congress ratified an extradition accord with Turkey. The treaty dates to May 2017, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Beijing to attend the Belt and Road Initiative Forum.
“If we look at China's systematic assimilationist and genocidal policies in East Turkistan, the dangers that this agreement may bring will be severe,” said Erkin Ekrem, director of Ankara-based Uighur Research Institute, using the Uighur preferred “East Turkistan” term for China’s Xinjiang region.
Ekrem told VOA the extradition treaty tilts largely in favor of China, where capital punishment is applied. He said Uighur refugees who are at risk of a death sentence if they return to China are particularly made vulnerable by the treaty, which makes no stipulation that those who are facing the death penalty there cannot be extradited.
The agreement, consisting of 22 articles, obligates a signing country to extradite any person wanted on charges of criminal activity to the requesting country.
“Extradition can only be granted if the conduct targeted by the extradition request constitutes a crime under the laws of both countries,” the agreement states.
Turkish and Chinese officials have dismissed claims the treaty provides a legal window for the deportation of Uighurs from Turkey.
A diplomatic source at the Turkish Foreign Ministry told VOA the country views its treaty with China as a routine move similar to 32 other such treaties signed with other countries for the extradition of criminals under international law.
“It is extremely wrong to view the extradition treaty with the PRC as targeting Uighur Turks,” said the source.
During the submission of the treaty for a vote at the Chinese People’s Congress, China’s vice minister of foreign affairs, Le Yucheng, said the agreement addressed the cooperation needs in anti-terrorism and crime fighting between Beijing and Ankara.
Le said the Chinese and Turkish representatives during negotiations on the agreement disagreed on determining the nationality of the person to be deported. Turkey proposed that if the person requested for extradition had acquired the nationality of the requested country when the extradition request was made, the person should be recognized as a national of the requested country. The Chinese side, however, argued such a proposition could encourage criminals to evade extradition by changing their nationality.
“The two parties finally agreed not to specify the time for nationality recognition in the treaty, but to hand it over to the competent authorities in accordance with their respective domestic laws in practice,” Le said.
Turkey’s inability to include its proposal in the treaty means many Uighurs who acquired Turkish citizenship nonetheless could face a crackdown by Beijing, according to Hankiz Kurban, a Turkey-born Uighur whose parents were abducted by Chinese authorities despite their Turkish citizenship.
“If this treaty is ratified by the Turkish parliament, I fear that I won’t be able to see my parents forever,” she said.
Kurban said her father came to Turkey as a child and her mother as a teenager from Xinjiang. The two were arrested by Chinese police in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in 2017 while they were on a business trip and have been incommunicado ever since.
Rights organizations say the Chinese government has since 2017 subjected more than 1 million Uighur Muslims to torture, forced sterilization, coerced labor and abandonment of their faith in internment camps. But China denies the mistreatment of the minority, saying the detention facilities are “vocational training centers” to combat extremism and teach Uighurs different job skills.
Relations between Ankara and Beijing seemed strained for a short period after the Turkish president called the Chinese government’s handling of a Uighur protest in July 2009 in Urumqi “a genocide.” The two began to reconcile through the establishment of a strategic cooperative relationship in October 2010.
According to Kemal Kirisci, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Turkish government in recent years has been “surprisingly quiet and subdued” in the treatment of Uighurs because of the Chinese government’s increasing economic leverage over Turkey.
“Economic considerations may well be playing a role given the dire state of the Turkish economy and the poor relations that Turkey has with its traditional allies in the West,” Kirisci told VOA.
Last October, 39 countries in a letter to the U.N. condemned China’s policies in Xinjiang. Uighur diaspora activists said Turkey’s unwillingness to join the effort was noticeable.
Alimcan Inayet, director of the Istanbul-based Uighur Academy, charged that Uighur organizations engaged in political activism for “the East Turkistan cause” have found themselves increasingly under pressure.
The extradition treaty means these groups “would have to be more restrained in their activities,” added Inayet.
Last year, NPR said in a report that Turkey had deported at least four Uighurs to Tajikistan, and one of them, Zinnetgul Tursun, ended up in Chinese police custody along with her two toddlers.
Turkey’s directorate general of migration management in a statement last September, however, denied Turkey had extradited Uighurs to China “directly or through third countries.”
Despite the Turkish reaffirmation, some Uighurs in Turkey say Ankara’s expanded cooperation with Beijing in security has elevated Uighur refugees’ fear of being extradited to China.
“I love Turkey. I am not against this country. Even though I have never committed any criminal act, I am constantly fearful of being arrested or deported,” lamented Ihsan Kartal, a Uighur refugee and a businessman in Istanbul.