As the sheer scale of human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang region continues to be exposed, Turkish authorities have been accused of forcibly repatriating their Uighur refugee population in a bid to secure Chinese Sinovac Covid-19 vaccines.
Turkey’s Covid-19 response is heavily reliant on such vaccines, with tens of millions of promised doses not yet delivered. Turkey maintains the 9th highest number of cumulative cases in the world and, with new cases beginning to rise once again, are likely desperate to continue their vaccine rollout.
In recent months, police have detained around 50 Uighurs in deportation centers, somewhat validating fears that the Chinese government is reneging on previous commitments in an attempt to force the extradition of Uighur refugees in Turkey.
Halim Yilmaz, an Istanbul-based lawyer who has nearly 30 active Uighur clients detained on terrorism allegations, said that
“If I have three Uighur clients in the detention centers, when they are released, I know I’ll have three more”
Turkey and China have also moved closer to the passing of an extradition treaty that could silence Uighurs in Turkey by allowing China to demand that their “political opponents be extradited” for crimes against the state. Mehmet Okatan, a lawyer who had more than 20 Uighur clients in 2020, said that:
“Uighurs are first sent to deportation centers before allegations are thoroughly investigated” and “the accused, including children and elderly people, can languish in deportation centers for as long as a year”
Beijing’s leverage over Ankara has grown exponentially in recent years. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China’s provision of a $3.6 billion loan in 2018, following the collapse of the Lira, and the potential trade opportunities presented by the Belt and Road Initiative, have placed the Turkish government in a position where they are particularly susceptible to Chinese coercion.
As new reports of systematic rape, sexual abuse and torture in Xinjiang “re-education” camps begin to surface, the forced repatriation of Turkey’s Uighur minority becomes increasingly concerning.
Pressure from the international community surrounding the treatment of Uighurs in China has increased significantly. The new Biden administration has recently reaffirmed its position regarding the condition of human rights in Xinjiang, with Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, saying that:
“My judgment remains that genocide is committed against the Uighurs, and that hasn’t changed”
Turkey maintains a 50,000 strong Uighur diaspora population and has often been seen as a safe haven for the persecuted minority. It is therefore vital that the Turkish government ensures the rights of Uighurs are protected in compliance with the 1951 Refugee Convention and international law.