ISTANBUL – Six years ago, he fled China’s crackdown on Muslim Uighurs and sought refuge in Turkey, joining a community of fellow exiles. He started a business with his brother, translating and publishing self-help books into their language. His wife got a job as a teacher in a Uighur school where his children began to take classes.
Now, Ablet Abdugani worries the life he built will disappear.
The Turkish government told him he had to leave the country. That could mean being sent back to China and likely straight into detention in a sprawling network of internment camps where about 1 million Muslims are held.
“I am scared whenever the door opens,” Abdugani said in his apartment on the far outskirts of Istanbul. “I feel very sad about my six years here.”
Uighurs have left China in droves as the government intensified a campaign of assimilation in the western region of Xinjiang. In the last three years, at least 11,000 have landed in Turkey, long a favored haven.
Now, they worry they could become pawns in a geopolitical game.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who a decade ago called Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs a genocide, has tried to reduce his country’s reliance on the West by turning to nations such as China. In recent years, he has secured billions of dollars in loans and investments from the Asian giant to help prop up the faltering Turkish economy.
Earlier this year, Turkey deported at least four Uighurs to Tajikistan. From there, they were sent back to China, alarming the Uighur community and drawing protests on social media. Turkish authorities later said they would not send any Uighurs back to China. But Abdugani, who was not deported, and many others like him remain anxious.
“We are caught in the middle of Chinese-Turkish relations and we don’t even know how much we are worth,” Abdugani said.
For those who have fled China, Turkey has offered them a place to reimagine their homeland.
Their people share a common heritage and similar languages. Turkey’s government recognizes Turkic people as their own.
But many Uighurs in Turkey find themselves in a state of impermanence. They are denied work permits and business licenses, and in some cases permanent residence and citizenship. Once their Chinese passports expire, they are left effectively stateless.