A Chinese Muslim refugee said he is terrified he might be sent back to China after being detained in a deportation center near Istanbul for more than two months.
The Uighur community in northwest China has faced an intense crackdown in recent years, with an estimated 1 million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities held in internment camps that Beijing calls “vocational education centers.”
Turkey has been the only Muslim-majority nation to criticize China’s policies and offered refuge to tens of thousands of Uighur refugees.
However, fears have spread through the community after rumors that some Uighurs were being deported, most notably a woman and her two children who were given Tajik passports and taken to Tajikistan, from where they were sent back to China.
The latest case involves a 29-year-old man named Aihemaiti Xianmixiding, who has Turkish residency and work permits, and runs a factory in Istanbul making car accessories.
He was arrested on May 30 and is under investigation for being “one of the main financers” of a little-known “terrorist organization” called the Uighur National Movement, according to court documents seen by reporters.
“I had never heard of [this organization] before,” Xianmixiding said by telephone from the Pehlivankoy deportation center in the northwestern province of Kirklareli on Saturday.
He said relatives in China had recently been forced to sign papers requesting his repatriation, which he feared was part of an effort to pressure the Turkish government into agreeing to his deportation.
“I’m worried because I know China has the capacity to achieve this. I have heard of Uighurs who were deported from Turkey to Tajikistan and, from there, to China. I am afraid the same thing will happen to me,” he added.
His wife, 25-year-old Ekide, on Sunday said there was no explanation for why he was being held in a deportation center rather than a regular jail.
Xianmixiding said dozens of other Uighurs were being held in the same center, but most were released after a meeting between Uighur community leaders and Turkish Minister of the Interior Suleyman Soylu on Aug. 2.
Xianmixiding said there were still eight Uighurs in the center.
Ekide burst into tears as she described the situation.
“He is a very hard-working man. We stayed clear of anything that could get us in trouble. What mattered most for him was to make sure his children would have a good future,” she said. “I am afraid they will send him to Tajikistan and then China.”
Xianmixiding said he had received threats from China via messaging service WeChat since fleeing the country in 2016.
“The police told me ‘We will bring you back, just you wait,’” he said.
With Turkey yesterday starting the Eid al-Adha yesterday, the government was unavailable for comment, but at a news conference last month, immigration officials denied they would ever send Uighurs back to China, though they also said refugees convicted of crimes could lose their residency status.
Asked about the case of Zinnetgul Tursun — the woman sent back to Tajikistan with her two children — the officials said she had entered Turkey illegally and been claimed as a Tajik citizen by the Tajikistan embassy.
Uighur activists have told reporters that they fear Tajikistan is acting under the orders of Beijing to facilitate deportations through its territory.
“Turkey was never planning to send us back. So China is playing these mind games to keep everyone worried so we don’t organize bigger things,” one activist said.
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