Fleeing China

Fleeing China


The folded piece of paper with a photo of a four-month-old baby tells a story that will loom over Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Chinese hosts when he visits Beijing this week.

Baby Arife is a Uighur, one of thousands of members of China’s Turkic language-speaking Muslim ethnic minority who have reached Turkey, mostly since last year. That has infuriated Beijing, which accuses Ankara of helping its citizens to flee unlawfully.

Turkish officials deny playing any direct role in assisting the flight. But the document, labelled "Republic of Turkey Emergency Alien's Travel Document”, suggests otherwise.

. Kayseri, Turkey. Reuters/Umit Bektas

Arife's mother, Summeye, 35, says she was given it, along with documents for herself and her three other children, by a diplomat at the Turkish embassy in Kuala Lumpur. She reached Malaysia after a nine-day journey transported by people smugglers through Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

The document, valid only for travel to Turkey, lists the baby's place of birth as Turpan, a city in China's western Xinjiang region. Under "nationality", it says "East Turkestan", the name Uighur activists and their Turkish supporters give for their Chinese-ruled homeland.

. Istanbul, Turkey. Reuters/Osman Orsal

Other Uighurs in Istanbul said they too had reached Turkey last year through a similar route, hiring people smugglers to escape China and receiving travel documents on the way.

The issue is an uncomfortable one for Ankara, which says it is open to valid asylum claims by victims of repression who reach its territory, but denies acting abroad to assist the exodus of Uighurs that surged last year.

. Istanbul, Turkey. Reuters/Osman Orsal

Uighurs fleeing China say they are escaping repression by the Chinese authorities.

"You can't pray. You can't keep more than one Koran at home. You can't teach Islam to your children. You can't fast and you can't go to Hajj. When you're deprived of your whole identity, what's the point?" said another Uighur refugee, also named Sumeyye, covered from head to toe in a chador, who fled to Turkey last October with her three children.

"They don't allow us to live as Muslims."

Nationalist Turks regard the Uighurs as ethnic kin in peril and believe their government should do more to help them.

China denies it represses the Uighurs and says their freedom of religion is respected. It accuses a group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement of waging an increasingly violent campaign for an independent state in Xinjiang and says the group is recruiting followers to train in the Middle East.

Uighurs themselves acknowledge that some members of their community have crossed from Turkey to fight alongside Islamic State militants in Syria, but say this is a small minority.

. Kayseri, Turkey. Reuters/Umit Bektas

About 1,000 Uighurs are housed in a gated complex in the conservative city of Kayseri in central Turkey, guarded by police.

The apartments are spacious but sparsely furnished. Two large flags hang from one of the top floors - one the red Turkish flag, the other the blue flag of East Turkestan. One apartment is used as a Koranic school for young boys.

. Kayseri, Turkey. Reuters/Umit Bektas

Many residents told stories of persecution in China and arduous journeys out, paying smugglers thousands of dollars to evade onerous travel restrictions imposed by Beijing.

"For these traffickers, Uighurs mean money, Uighurs mean cash. If you are Vietnamese ... they charge $1,000, but when you are Uighur the price goes up five-fold, sometimes ten-fold," said 54-year old Erkin Huseyin.

. Kayseri, Turkey. Reuters/Umit Bektas

Huseyin said he left Xinjiang in early 2014 after being told his brother, sick and imprisoned without trial since 1998, would not be allowed to see a doctor and would not leave jail alive.

"We were born into a life of oppression," said another refugee, Omar Abdulgaffar, 44. "Our parents have gone through this and I thought...why should my children go through it too? So we escaped.”