In mid-July, the Thai government provoked international ire when it forcibly repatriated over one hundred asylum-seeking Uyghurs back to China. Uyghurs are a Muslim Turkic language-speaking people native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonymous Region, where there has been considerable unrest in recent years. In 2015, the Chinese government intensified its crackdown on Islamic dress and other religious and traditional practices in Xinjiang, adding to local grievances against Chinese rule. China has traditionally sought the return of those Uyghurs who seek refugee status abroad, a process condemned by human rights advocates.
The repatriation of Uyghur asylum seekers to China sparked furious outrage against China in Turkey. Turkey has historically presented itself as the protector of the Uyghur people and offers asylum and identification papers to those who make it there. Anti-Chinese protesters in Ankara smashed windows and broke into the Chinese Embassy. Another hundred Uyghurs rounded-up by the Thai government in mid-July had Turkish identification papers, and were sent on to Turkey.
Turkey is a natural destination for Uyghurs fleeing the country as the Chinese government intensifies its crackdown on Islamic and traditional practices in Xinjiang, but getting there is hard. Whether they travel through Central Asia or South East Asia, the journey is harrowing and dangerous. As one refugee told Reuters in Istanbul: ‘For … traffickers, Uyghurs mean money, Uyghurs mean cash. If you are Vietnamese … they charge $1,000, but when you are Uyghur the price goes up five-fold, sometimes ten-fold.’ He had fled after being told that his sick and imprisoned brother would not ‘leave jail alive’.
Dismissive of claims of persecution, the Chinese government works hard to associate Uyghur refugees with religious extremism. The Chinese media suggested that many Uyghurs repatriated from Thailand in July have a history of extremism and that their ultimate destination was the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. One Chinese official said that many Uyghurs in Turkey had become ‘cannon fodder’ for IS. IS has also pushed forward the narrative, releasing a video in June 2015 featuring a eighty-year old Uyghur man who had travelled from China to join the jihad. In December, Indonesian officials foiled a terrorist plot that reportedly involved a Uyghur man who had entered Indonesia through Thailand.
The blurred line in world media between political refugees and extremists has worked in Beijing’s favour. In December, Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claimed that over 5,000 Uyghur ‘would-be fighters’ had been funnelled to Syria via Turkey—approximately the total number of Uyghur refugees who have arrived in Turkey since 2013.