With the largest Uighur diasporic group outside of China, Turkey is home to about 50,000 members of this central Asian Muslim demographic. And now, amidst the pandemic, Uighurs in Turkey may be facing the possibility of being shipped off to concentration camps in China. Let’s recap:
As many countries have struck deals for COVID-19 vaccines in recent months, many more have struggled to procure fair and sufficient arrangements. Such was the case in Turkey- that is, until they finally managed to place an order for 100 million doses of the CoronaVac vaccine manufactured by Sinovac Biotech, a Chinese drugmaker. From this point onwards, it seemed as though everything was going according to plan, with the country planning to start its vaccination program on December 11th.
However, it all came to a halt when CoronaVac vaccine shipments were delayed, all while Chinese authorities simultaneously ratified an extradition treaty between both nations. The timing of this extradition treaty ratification and the vaccines being shipped after weeks of delay afterwards has raised concerns within Turkey, and fear within its Uighur population.
So, what does the Uighur population in Turkey have to do with the vaccine shipment being delayed, and the China-Turkey extradition treaty being ratified?
And most importantly, who are the Uighurs, and why are they rightly afraid?
Uighurs are a Central Asian Muslim minority demographic, native to the land they inhabit in present-day China. Making up less than half of the population of Xinjiang, an autonomous northwestern region in China, their distinctive language and religion set them apart from the rest of the country. In 2017, the Chinese government launched a crackdown on Uighurs, citing their religion as a ‘national security threat’, in reality solely as a justification for a mass ethnic cleansing.
Although Chinese authorities continue to deny their Uighur genocide, a growing body of evidence has revealed concentration camps concealed by the government as ‘re-education centers’ in Xinjiang. With more than 12 million Uighurs in the country, it seems as if China will stop at nothing to remove them, already having detained at least 1 million Uighurs. In these camps, Uighurs have been and continue to be subjected to gruesome mental, physical, and sexual torture at an unprecedented scale, including mass sterilization, forced labor, mass surveillance, and systematic rape.
For a while, Turkey had been a safe haven for the Uighurs, with the country’s leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, proclaiming himself to be a champion of oppressed Muslims - going as far as to voice his criticism of China’s actions in Xinjiang. The country has had a good track of defending Uighurs in the past, considering them as an extended global family of Turkic people. Thus, sharing a similar language and culture to the Turks had placed Uighurs under the wing of Turkey’s defense, with Erdogan openly welcoming Uighurs to his country between 2009 and 2015. But it seems as though those acts of kindness have been left in the past, with Erdogan’s government seemingly cozying up to China in the last few years.
The Uighurs’ future in Turkey was first threatened as China started to invest and loan billions to Turkey, after an attempted coup in 2016 left Erdogan’s relationship with western governments vulnerable. Being tied by economic commitments with China has forged a diplomatic relationship between President Erdogan and Chinese Leaders- the advocate for Uighurs that Turkey was once led by has now gone as far as praising China for their assistance and even claiming that Uighurs in Xinjiang are ‘happy’.
Furthermore, in 2019, already alienated from those in the West, Turkey refused to sign a UN Human Rights Council letter condemning China’s treatment of Uighurs.
Seeking alternative partners in this grim global situation poses a challenge to Turkey, having to rely on stronger ties with China to lure more capital and investment into the country. Turkey is indebted to China, and is forced to take actions to meet what it owes, even buying the Chinese vaccine when it had yet to undergo all phases of testing. It is from this debt that Erdogan ratified the deal with Beijing to extradite those with criminal charges back to China- referring to none other than Uighurs, whose very existence is seen as a crime in the eyes of Chinese authorities.
Recent detentions of around fifty Uighurs in Turkey have panicked the community in the country, with most apprehension cases being labeled as politically-motivated and with no concrete evidence of ‘links to terrorist activities’. With the Turkish ambassador in Beijing recently praising the value of judicial cooperation with China, many fear this to be a possible crackdown. Although the presence of widespread public sympathy for Uighurs in Turkey would not allow for immediate mass deportations, many believe their chances of being deported have grown exponentially bigger, with handfuls being sent off now and then.
Uighurs feel as if they have lost their home in Turkey, fearing a forced return to a country that doesn’t recognize them as human individuals. Classified by China as ‘criminals’, it leaves nearly all of them vulnerable to the extradition treaty, as most do not have Turkish citizenship and cannot be safe-guarded by Ankara.
How did leaders from both nations react to the Uighur-vaccine deal accusation? Opposition parties in Turkey have accused Erdogan’s government of selling out Uighurs to China in exchange for the missing coronavirus vaccines. Leaders in Ankara, the Turkish capital, were questioned as to the nature of the vaccine delay and its correlation with the extradition deal. However, Turkish officials insist they ‘do not use Uighurs for political purposes and continue to defend their human rights’. Contrary enough to this statement, Erdogan’s party previously blocked the creation of a special investigation of human rights abuses in Xinjiang during early 2020. Likewise, the Chinese embassy in Ankara rejected the accusations of their political leverage over Turkey, deeming it “unfounded”. However, the Turkish Foreign Minister responded that China had indeed requested them to extradite Uighurs to China, but that it was declined by the Turkish government.
Whether or not these claims are true, the silence from Ankara regarding Uighur oppression in the last couple of years has been enough to create a great deal of panic. Since then, protests outside the Chinese embassy in Ankara have been met with police and have been prevented from occurring anywhere near the Chinese diplomatic mission again. With rising fears between Uighurs in Turkey, many have fled to Western European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, where they hope they will have stronger protections.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Uighurs are more vulnerable than ever to human rights abuses. Between the hardships that the pandemic has brought upon Turkey, a country that many Uighurs consider to be their second homeland, Turkish leaders must recognize the crucial safety net that their support would bring Uighurs, and most importantly, the dangers that Uighurs face back in China. No person should be used as political leverage, not even for a vaccine, when there is an ongoing genocide just a couple thousand miles away.
Turkey’s next moves will be watched under much scrutiny.