Beijing must “cease efforts to coerce” Uighur Muslims who fled the country to return, a US State Department spokesperson told Al Arabiya English on Monday, following reports that Turkey is sending Uighur refugees back to China.
“The United States will continue to call on the People’s Republic of China to immediately end its campaign of repression in Xinjiang, release all those arbitrarily detained, and cease efforts to coerce members of Muslim minority groups residing abroad to return to China to face an uncertain fate,” a State Department spokesperson told Al Arabiya English on Monday.
Turkey is sending Uighur refugees back home to China, where they face imprisonment and persecution, through third countries like Tajikistan, the Telegraph revealed on Sunday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “is helping China repatriate Muslim dissidents by sending them to third countries before they return [to China],” the Telegraph reported.
For decades Uighur Muslims have sought refuge in Turkey from repression in China, which has detained one million Uighurs in “reeducation camps” that reportedly force them to renounce their religious identity.
Beijing considers many Uighurs to be extremists and claims they are dangerous to China’s national security.
In the past, Erdogan, who styles himself as a global Islamic leader, has called Chinese actions against Uighur Muslims in China “genocide.”
But recently his government has stopped speaking out against China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a move the Telegraph says is likely economically motivated and stems from Ankara’s desire for Chinese investment in Turkey.
From Turkey to Tajikistan to China
The Telegraph recounts the story of 59-year-old Aimuzi Kuwanhan, a Uighur who fled China and sought sanctuary in Turkey, residing in state housing.
After disappearing last summer, she was traced to a detention center in the Turkish city of Izmir, before being extradited to Tajikistan, according to the Telegraph citing a lawyer hired by her family.
“Sources who knew Kuwahan say from there she was sent to China,” the newspaper said.
Another Uighur woman, Zinntegul Tursun, was also deported from Turkey to Tajikistan to China last year, according to the Telegraph.
These are not the first reports of the Turkish government complying with Chinese requests against the Uighurs.
US public media outlet National Public Radio reported in March that Uighur refugee Abdurehim Imin Parach, a longtime critic of Chinese treatment of Uighurs, was arrested in Istanbul by Turkish policemen who “urged him not to speak out against China.”
“I’m not sure if China is putting pressure directly on the Turkish government to control Uighurs here,” Parach said in an interview with NPR, “or if Chinese agents have infiltrated Turkish society to frame us as terrorists.”
Uighur persecution in China
The Uighur population, an ethnic minority in China, are overwhelmingly Muslim and reside in the northwestern Xinjiang region, which borders many countries including Tajikistan.
Since 2017, the Chinese government has systematically cracked down on the community by detaining more than a million Uighur Muslims in “reeducation camps,” according to US and UN estimates.
Claiming that these Uighurs in custody hold extremist views, Beijing detains them and forces them to renounce Islam and live in prison-like conditions at the camps, former detainees told The Globe and Mail in 2018.
Uighurs have been detained for attending services at mosques and texting about the Quran, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.