Hundreds of protestors filled Istanbul’s Beyazit Square this week to protest China’s ‘genocide’ of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. This comes during a series of diplomatic meetings in the Turkish city of Ankara between Turkish and Chinese officials, including Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. The protestors, primarily Turkish Uighurs, waved flags of the independence movement of “East Turkestan,” the Turkish name for Xinjiang, and chanted, “Stop Uighur genocide, close the camps.” The recent protests are a response to treaty talks between China and Turkey that some fear would result in the extradition of Uighurs back to China, where they could face criminal charges and detainment in Xinjiang “re-education” camps.
There are estimated to be approximately 45,000 Uighurs living in Turkey, many of whom fled from China due to fear of state-sponsored persecution. Under the extradition agreement, many of these individuals, including those who have acquired Turkish citizenship, would be eligible for deportation back to China, where they likely face arrest.
The extradition treaty between China and Turkey was signed by President Tayyip Erdoğan in 2017 but still awaits ratification in Turkey’s parliament. Non-governmental groups focused on Uighur rights have warned of dire consequences for Turkish Uighurs should the treaty finally be approved. Furthermore, there are concerns among Uighur activists that Turkey’s recent supply deal with Chinese state-owned company Sinovac for Covid-19 vaccines could be used by China to push through the agreement.
A statement from Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has emphasized that Turkey has raised the issue of Uighur persecution with Chinese officials and stressed that the current treaty being negotiated would not result in Uighurs being sent back to China. Omer Kanat, Executive Director of the Uighur Human Rights Project (UHRP), has responded, stating that the deal will force Turkey to “deport innocent Uighurs to China, where they face certain detention and torture, or worse.”
Leaked documents have shown that Chinese officials have previously asked for Turkish Uighurs to be extradited to China. In 2016, China requested the extradition of Enver Turdi, a former Xinjiang resident who has lived in Turkey since 2014. He was accused of supporting the Islamic State and was subsequently questioned by Turkish police and detained for 12 months in a deportation facility. He remains in Turkey as his case is still pending in Turkish courts. In 2019, at least three ethnic Uighurs, a mother, and her two children were reportedly deported to China in a move Turkey said was “related to [a] criminal extradition agreement.” Stories like these have fuelled worries that China is using its growing economic influence over Turkey to force through the extradition of Uighurs.
Chinese officials are currently in the midst of a six-country tour of the Middle East following condemnation and sanctions by the U.S.A., the U.K, Canada, and the EU regarding the country’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. China has denied allegations of abuse in the Uighur “re-education” camps, but a recent report from the BBC has unveiled widespread claims of abuse, torture, and even forced sterilizations at the hands of Chinese officials. The UN estimates that there are at least 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims currently being held in detention centers in Xinjiang.