Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign to project himself as a leader of the Muslim world has hit a major roadblock. Under Erdogan, Turkey is arresting Uighurs and keeping them in detention centres to ostensibly deport them to China—a country where they face internment camps and ethnic cleansing.
Till a couple of years back, Turkey was one of the few vocal supporters of the Uighur movement and a welcoming country for Uighur Muslims who managed to escape China's prisons and persecution. Because of ethnic affinity, Uighurs used to call Turkey their second home and have been settling there for decades. This changed once the Turkish Lira hit record lows, external debt ballooned and the economy nosedived in 2018. The crisis pushed Turkey into the welcoming arms of China, which was too happy to help. Turkey received a $3.6-billion loan from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and was grateful.
Since then the two have not looked back. A keen supporter of China's Belt and Road Initiative, Turkey now has Chinese investments in energy, infrastructure, tourism, transport and e-commerce. The Asian giant has been repeatedly pumping in money to keep the Turkish economy afloat—weighed down under $440 billion external debt. With the money flowing in, Turkey has given a burial to Uighur rights, detentions and re-education in special camps run by the Chinese Communist Party.
There was a time in 2009 when strongman Erdogan had said that Beijing is committing "a kind of genocide" against the Uighurs. Now that China has rounded up over a million Uighurs, and reportedly making Uighur women sleep with Han Chinese officials, Erdogan is keeping quiet. Uighurs are a Muslim community in Xinjiang, one of China’s largest provinces. They speak a Turkic language and have long considered Turkey a natural ally with nearly 35,000 Uighurs escaping China for Turkey.
However, this is an exchange between persecution and jail to living in poverty and uncertainty as Turkey has been arbitrarily rounding them up, not giving work permits and allowing Chinese policy to dictate Turkey its treatment of the Uighurs. China has been flooding the region not just with troops but also with Han Chinese after the 2009 riots left more than 140 people dead. The riots, that lasted days, allegedly started by Uighurs over discrimination in jobs, religious persecution, cultural incompatibilities and economic deprivation were one in a series of violent unrest against the Chinese state.
Determined not to allow unrest again, the Chinese government resorted to ethnic cleansing. Initiated by the Communist Party, the nearly one-million Uighur men in re-education camps in China work as forced labor where they create products for international brands. With a changed economic scenario, Uighurs find that Turkey is no longer a welcome country. The Erdogan government is arresting them from restaurants, mid-night raids at homes, streets and anywhere they can be found.
Hundreds have been arrested without charges and kept in deportation centres for months. Many fear that they are being followed and kept under watch by Turkish officials. With Beijing asking for extradition of the Uighurs, a handful have already been deported. Things have taken a turn for the worse after Erdogan's visit to China in 2019, after which he said that the people in Xinjiang "live happily" and supported the re-education camps as de-radicalization camps.
Erdogan, reportedly also said that he will not allow, “any forces to carry out anti-China activities in Turkey." With Turkey banging the doors on the embattled Uighurs, the community has found public support from the US, which blacklisted dozens of companies and institutions complicity in China’s human rights violations, high-technology surveillance of Uighurs, forced labor and arbitrary detentions. Not just this, Jim Risch, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, recently tweeted his criticism of Turkey.
He said: “It's shameful that Turkey assists China in violating Uyghur human rights.” His tweet found support in Edward Markey, Democratic Senator, who criticized Erdogan by saying: “As Beijing pushes its own extradition and intimidation campaign against minorities, Turkey should rededicate itself to the protection of persecuted Uyghurs.” The tweets did not go down well with Turkey. Serdar Kilic, Turkish ambassador to the US, mounted a strong defence of his country's policy towards the Uighurs by referred to the tweets as unsubstantiated and biased.
Even as Erdogan looks forward to his resurrection as a caliph, a tottering economy and withdrawal of support for the Uighur Muslims might undo his dreams. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Uighurs in Turkey keep looking over their shoulders and live with nightmares as the Communist party chases them through Turkish streets with Erdogan's help.