Turkey rejected Uyghur citizenship applications over "national security" risks
The Turkish government has rejected the citizenship applications of some Uyghurs who have been outspoken about the detention of their families in China, citing risks they pose to "national security" and "public order," according to interviews and documents reviewed by Axios.
Why it matters: Turkey has been an important refuge for Uyghurs, who have faced repressive policies in China for years. But Ankara's growing economic and security ties with Beijing have led to fears among some Uyghurs that they're no longer safe in Turkey.
- The denial of citizenship for some Uyghurs in Turkey fits a broader pattern of China's growing ability to extend repression beyond its own borders, Elise Anderson, a senior program officer at the D.C.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, told Axios.
- Chinese government authorities are "surveilling, tracking and hunting down Uyghurs, and in some cases, have succeeded in sending them back to the People's Republic of China," Anderson said.
Details: Alimcan Turdi, a Uyghur who moved to Turkey in 2013 for education opportunities for his children, told Axios he has numerous relatives in Xinjiang who were detained in mass internment camps in 2017 and he has not heard from them since.
- He began organizing protests in Turkey and speaking out against the Chinese government on social media in 2019. In October 2021, Turdi's application for citizenship in the country he had called home for more than seven years was rejected.
- Turdi says he received no explanation other than a document that cited "obstacle to national security" and "public order" — allegations that he called "very upsetting," given the loyalty he said he feels for Turkey. Turdi is now in the Netherlands, though his family remains in Turkey.
Axios spoke to four other Uyghurs who described similar experiences and provided documentation.
- Amine Vahid, a Uyghur woman who has lived in Turkey since 2015, said both her and her 17-year-old son's applications were rejected in October 2021 on "national security" and "public order" grounds.
- Vahid said she has participated in protests in Turkey because she has relatives in the camps, but claims her son has never been involved in activism and is being unfairly punished.
- One Uyghur woman who wished to stay anonymous told Axios she has never participated in protests or anti-China social media activity, but that applications for her, her husband and three children were all rejected for the same reasons.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry, Interior Ministry and embassy in D.C. did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The big picture: Many Uyghurs are worried about their ability to remain safely in Turkey, which is home to one of the largest Uyghur diasporas in the world, with estimates between 30,000 and 50,000 people.
- The Chinese government has asked Ankara to extradite some Uyghurs back to China; many Uyghurs believe at least one Uyghur family in Turkey has been deported. Egypt, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have deported numerous Uyghurs at China's request.
- The inability to obtain citizenship and the loss of residency status can plunge Uyghurs into statelessness and make it difficult for them to keep jobs and go to school in Turkey.
Background: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was once critical of China's repression of Uyghurs, including suggesting in 2009, years before the construction of the camps, that ethnic violence in Xinjiang amounted to "genocide." Uyghurs and Turkish people share linguistic, ethnic and religious ties.
- But as Erdogan has turned away from the West in recent years and strengthened economic links to China, Ankara's criticism has grown muted.
- On a visit to Beijing in 2019, Erdogan warned that to "exploit" the Uyghur issue would damage Turkey-China relations and that he believed it was possible to "find a solution to this issue that takes into consideration the sensitivities on both sides."
The bottom line: "Turkish people know about Uyghurs and care about Uyghurs," Anderson said. "But at other times, Turkish authorities make moves that leave Uyghurs in fear."