Life in China is tough for the minority Uighur (pronounced wee-ger) community. Based in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, this Muslim minority is kept on a short leash by the Chinese state.
“There is so much injustice in Turkestan, you cannot even begin to imagine it,” a member of the Uighur community who went by only his initials MK, told Al-Jazeera. “We had no freedom at all to practice our religion. Going to mosques was forbidden. My father spent 10 years in prison. I also went to jail twice or three times for short periods. We don’t know why. They come to our homes and arrest us for no reason whatsoever.”
Though based in China, Uighurs are culturally and linguistically closer to Turkic ethnic groups of central Asia than to China’s predominate Han ethnic group. That hasn’t stopped Han from migrating to Xinjiang, where the 2000 census said they make up 40 percent of the local population (Uighurs make up 45 percent). The Chinese authorities have cracked down hard on the minority Uighurs religious freedoms, most recently forbidding them from fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Such abuses have led many Uighurs to try and flee China for Turkey, where the similarity in language, religion, and culture allows them to easily assimilate. More than 600 Uighurs have taken refuge in central Turkey in recent months and Professor Erkin Emet of Ankara University estimated 7,000 arrived in 2014, the LA Times reported.
The path to Turkey though is not direct. Many clandestinely cross borders from China into Vietnam and then to Thailand where they try to find fake passports to get to Turkey. Others try to escape through any neighboring country, like Kyrgyzstan on China’s western border. Last month, Thailand sent 170 refuge-seeking Uighurs to settle in Turkey. While the Turks welcome Uighurs with open arms, Beijing was angered by the immigration. In an effort to appease the Chinese government over sending the Uighurs to Turkey last month, Thailand deported just over 100 to China earlier this week.
The deportation has drawn the ire of international rights groups. “Thailand should make it clear it won’t further violate international law by immediately announcing a moratorium on additional deportations of Turkic people to China,” Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian.
The Thai embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul have shut down after the decision sparked unrest from pro-Uighur protesters in Turkey. The consulate in particular was attacked and police outside the Chinese embassy in Ankara hit protesters with pepper spray.
China meanwhile claims that keeping Uighurs under the state’s thumb is a terrorism issue. They fear that Turkey will be the stepping stone into Syria and Iraq. Unconfirmed reports put the number of Uighurs fighting for radical groups in the Middle East at around 300, but experts believe this number could be inflated by China to support their crackdown on Xinjiang.
“I would not be surprised to find some 300 Uighurs have gone off to fight for ISIS, but I would be surprised if the crackdown on Xinjiang were mostly related to this apparent fact,” Patrick Cronin, who heads the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told the Washington Times.