Uighurs in Turkey demand permission to work, residence permits

Uighurs who have sought asylum in Turkey have demanded official permits that will allow them to work and benefit from the healthcare system, Reuters reported on Thursday.

Ismail Cengiz, the founding secretary general of the Istanbul-based East Turkestan National Center, told Reuters there are some 35,000 Uighurs living in Turkey, which has been a safe haven for exiles who escaped from repression against Muslims by the government in China.

East Turkestan is the name given by some Uighur nationalists for the region in northwest China that is the historic home of the Uighur people.

Cengiz said many Uighurs in Turkey have come to fear they may be sent back to China.

While Uighurs had no problems in Turkey until three or four years ago, Ankara’s security concerns and stronger ties with Beijing reversed that trend, Seyit Tümtürk, president of a rights organisation called the National Assembly of East Turkestan, told Reuters

A gunman believed to be an Uzbek national killed 39 people in a popular Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Day 2017, and Tümtürk said this has caused Ankara to tighten the vetting process for new arrivals, in turn leaving some Uighurs without work or residence permit. 

“Not all of the people whose passports have been labeled as risky... are problematic people,” Reuters quoted Tümtürk as saying. “People who can’t retrieve a required document from China may experience the same issue.”

Münevver Özuygur, the president of the East Turkestan Nuzugum Culture and Family Foundation, told Reuters that Uighurs have also faced problems renewing their Chinese passports at the local embassy when they expire. The embassy has instead been issuing documents valid only for a return trip to China, she said

Qurbanjan Nourmuhammed is among 15 Uighurs living in Turkey that spoke to Reuters. He and his family face an uncertain future in Istanbul, where they live without Turkish residence permits and are unable to renew their Chinese passports, Reuters said. They are also cut off from their son Pakzat, who returned to Xinjiang, the autonomous Uighur region in northwest China, three years ago. A friend of Pakzat later told Nourmuhammed that he had been detained in China upon arrival at the airport in Urumchi.

“When my son was arrested, he was only a 16-year-old kid,” Pakzat’s mother told Reuters. “I don’t believe he was involved in a crime, I think he was falsely accused.”

Cengiz said many Uighurs had begun to fear they may be sent back to China. “Turkey was seen as the only country that could stand up to China. In the past year, they have been fearing for their existence in Turkey,” he said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2009 criticised China’s treatment of ethnic Uighurs, which he described as “genocide.” Yet since then, the Turkish government remained mostly silent about the issue until last month, when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called on Chinese authorities to protect freedom of religion during a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting.

In a written statement last month, the Turkish Foreign Ministry Turkey called on China to close its detention centres, which reportedly hold more than one million Uighurs and other Muslims. 

“There is a positive development in the favour of East Turkestan,” Özuygur said in relation to Turkey’s recent diplomatic efforts. “Turkey started to give China the message that it is aware of the oppressions that Uighurs experience in a proper way with a diplomatic attitude.”