Turkish authorities have rejected the citizenship applications of some Uyghur refugees, telling them they were suspected risks to Turkey’s “national security” or “social order,” some of the Uyghurs told VOA.
“Phone communication” was the reason Turkey rejected one Uyghur family for citizenship last year. While the family doesn’t know what that means, rights organizations say the term could mean that the person applying for citizenship has communicated with someone connected to an extremist organization in another country, such as Syria.
“My whole family’s application was rejected, including my wife and children,” the Uyghur refugee told VOA. He requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal in Turkey.
Erkin Ekrem, director of the Ankara-based Uyghur Research Institute, said Turkish Deputy Minister of the Interior Ismail Catakli told him and other Uyghur representatives last year that some foreign nationals in Turkey, including Uyghurs from China, were considered risks to national security.
“Catakli told us that it’s not only some Uyghurs. There are other foreign nationals as well,” Ekrem told VOA. “Catakli also said that it takes time to do background checks one by one.”
“He told us that people should wait patiently about their cases,” Ekrem said. ” ‘After we did a thorough background check, we will determine who is eligible and who is not.’ That’s what Catakli told us.”
The Turkish Embassy in Washington did not respond to multiple requests from VOA for comment on this story.
Uyghur foreign fighters have been known to operate throughout Central Asia and the Middle East, although the exact number has been difficult to pin down. In Syria alone, Uyghurs fighting for militant groups range in number from the hundreds to the thousands. Uyghurs have also carried out terror attacks in China in the past 20 years, according to a 2017 report from the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism.
Uyghurs in China
About 8,000 Uyghurs did become Turkish citizens last year, according to a rights group that wished not to be named for fear of reprisal.
Most of them were from China. In recent years, an estimated 50,000 Uyghurs fled to Turkey from western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where rights groups say the Chinese government is committing human rights abuses on local Turkic populations such as Uyghurs and Kazakhs.
International rights organizations and some Western countries including the U.S. say China has arbitrarily detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic groups in internment camps in Xinjiang since early 2017.
Beijing says the facilities are not internment camps but “vocational training centers” where people learn skills and the Chinese language. Beijing has also said it has taken measures to counter “the three evil forces in Xinjiang,” namely “ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism.”
Alimjan Turdi, a Uyghur, left Xinjiang for Turkey in 2013 with his wife and three daughters.
“I came to Turkey escaping China’s assimilationist policies in pursuit of a better education for my children,” Turdi told VOA from the Netherlands.
He became a rights activist in 2017, after the Chinese government had arrested some of his relatives and former colleagues and had detained them in Xinjiang internment camps, Turdi said.
“Chinese police contacted me on social media and asked me to work for them,” Turdi told VOA. “They said that if I want to help my relatives [and] colleagues and have a profiting business, I should work for them.”
Turdi refused the request and, along with other Uyghurs, became a vocal activist in Turkey, demanding the release of family members from China’s internment camps in Xinjiang.
In October, he stopped his activism in Turkey and decided to leave the country after the Turkish government had rejected his application for citizenship.
“I got excited and thought that my application for citizenship was accepted, after they [Turkish authorities] asked me to bring two passport-size pictures and sign relevant papers,” Turdi said.
When he went to the immigration office in Istanbul, he was told his application for citizenship had been rejected.
“I asked for an explanation. They said they don’t know the reason,” Turdi said. “I thought that my activism wouldn’t be harmful to Turkey.”
In December, Turdi left Turkey for the Netherlands, where he is seeking political asylum.
Turkey’s Uyghur position
The Turkish people have been sympathetic to Uyghurs, observers say.
Uyghurs and Turkish people are ethnically related and have a lot in common, both culturally and linguistically, explained Ilyas Dogan, a Turkish human rights lawyer based in Ankara who is handling 18 Uyghur cases, including Turdi’s.
“Uyghurs are treated badly in China, and even genocide is carried out against them,” Dogan said. “And almost everyone in Turkish society reacts to the injustice [the] Uyghurs have suffered.”
When a 2009 Uyghur-led protest in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi resulted in almost 200 dead, then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs as genocide.
Western countries have also accused China of genocide in its treatment of Uyghurs, which China says is the “lie of the century.”
In recent years, however, Turkey has also developed closer ties with Beijing, relying heavily on China’s financial support, Dogan said.
The trade volume between Turkey and China increased from $1.1 billion in 2001 to $23.6 billion in 2018, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency. In that same span of time, Turkey’s gross domestic product grew from $202 billion to $778 billion.
China’s growing influence on the Turkish economy has become the greatest obstacle to Turkey’s support of Uyghurs, Dogan said.
“China wants the Uyghurs who came to Turkey in recent years to leave Turkey,” Dogan said, “because there’s such a strong support for Uyghurs from Turkish society.”
According to Dogan, one reason given for the citizenship rejections is “risk to Turkey’s national security in the future.”