Uighurs flee China for Turkey in search of peace

State crackdowns prompt China’s Uighurs to risk long, perilous journeys in search of security and stability

YG with his daughter — of the the two children he could take with him — and his wife in Kayseri in central Turkey. The couple had to leave three of their children behind because they could not secure passports for them.
Guray Ervin

Many of the hundreds of ethnic Uighurs who have fled China illegally to escape religious persecution and discrimination have made harrowing journeys to reach Turkey. But those who have finally settled in state housing in the city of Kayseri, in central Turkey, say despite the sufferings of their journey, they needed to escape injustice at home. 

The Xinjiang region of western China, called East Turkestan by Uighur separatists, is home to about 10 million Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. Uighurs say they are repressed in their homeland and are unable to practice their religion freely. A 2012 Amnesty International report highlights incidents of "detailed widespread enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment of Uighurs" and harsh retribution against those who seek information about missing relatives.

The Chinese authorities say Uighurs are separatists and "terrorists."

When they first arrive in Istanbul, many of those fleeing Xinjiang are forced to live in cramped conditions, with about six families, or an average of 15 people, per apartment or small house. Observing their miserable conditions, the East Turkestan Culture and Solidarity Charity, a Uighur charity, in cooperation with the governor and mayor of Kayseri decided to allocate to them 100 apartments that were once used as official residences for transportation department employees.

Many charities offer assistance of food and supplies to refugees who stay in these units, and volunteer doctors offer them health services and free medical examinations.

Refugee children, undeterred by the cold weather and muddy ground, play in the garden and try to ride a broken bike. For them and their parents, this a safe haven.

AB: Leaving children behind

When told that journalists would be visiting them, the Uighurs in Kayseri initially refused to discuss how they left China, fearing for the safety of those they left behind. Some ultimately agreed to talk to Al Jazeera, via an interpreter, under the condition that they not be identified. 

One man, AB, a former merchant and a father of seven, said he did not register the birth of three of his children, and managed to hide their existence from the state. His youngest was born during the journey to Turkey.

He explains why he left China: “There is no way we can live there anymore. My wife cannot cover her head. We cannot recite Quran, and even prayer is prohibited,” he said.

AB said several of his friends were arrested in police raids on Uighur communities. Fearing he would be arrested soon, he decided to flee, but because he couldn’t obtain a passport, he had to leave illegally — a more dangerous path that means, he said tearfully, leaving his four youngest children behind with a friend.

“We could not take the rest of our children with us because we didn’t know the end of the road we were taking. We didn’t know what was awaiting us on that dangerous trip. I didn’t want to send all my children to their doom,” he said.

“I go out every morning at 7, and I never stop thinking about my children for a moment till I return in the evening. It is not easy to leave your children behind. You can only imagine the amount of injustice that forced us to do so,” he said.

‘We were accompanied by another family on the boat trip to Malaysia. They had a 5-year-old girl who fell from her mother’s lap into the sea. We couldn’t save her because none of us knew how to swim. Her mother’s cries are still ringing in my ears.’


Uighur refugee

Violent incidents, such as a deadly 2013 raid on a mosque during Ramadan, in which his 78-year-old uncle was killed, cemented his decision.

As for the story of his escape — an indirect route taken to avoid authorities — he said, “We walked in disguise for 28 days because Turkish Uighurs are not allowed to leave East Turkestan … After 28 days we arrived in Vietnam, where we met with the smugglers who helped us cross the forest area in six days, sometimes on foot and sometimes by car, till we arrived in Cambodia. From there we went to Laos, where we spent two days and then left for Thailand and stayed there for eight days, and again with the help of smugglers, we crossed into Malaysia in small boats at midnight.”

“We were accompanied by another family on the boat trip to Malaysia. They had a 5-year-old girl who fell from her mother’s lap into the sea. We couldn’t save her because none of us knew how to swim. Her mother’s cries are still ringing in my ears,” he said.

AB described the harsh conditions of the trip, saying that they could not carry large amounts of food, fearing it would impede their movement. Their diet consisted primarily of eggs and almonds, and when they were crossing the forest, they ate leaves and drank rainwater.

After three months of travel, they arrived in Malaysia, where they stayed for nine months.

He said he was discovered traveling with a fake passport at the airport on his way out of Malaysia, as other Uighurs in transit have been, was arrested and thrown into prison for three months along with his family. His wife, who had been pregnant throughout the trek, gave birth to their seventh child in prison.

He sought assistance from the Turkish Embassy in Malaysia, and after four months in Istanbul, he and his family have settled in Kayseri.

Freedom and uncertainty

MK, 25, is a father of three who went to Turkey three months ago. He is also one of those who fled China illegally because he did not have a passport.

“There is so much injustice in Turkestan, you cannot even begin to imagine it. We had no freedom at all to practice our religion. Going to mosques was forbidden. My father spent 10 years in prison. I also went to jail twice or three times for short periods. We don’t know why. They come to our homes and arrest us for no reason whatsoever.”

He says that it took him 11 months to get to Turkey. With the help of smugglers, he managed to escape to Vietnam, Cambodia and then Laos.

“Oftentimes we couldn’t find anything to eat. Our journey from Turkestan to Malaysia lasted two or three months, and we had seven children. For four or five days, we ate only one meal a day. Sometimes we ate leaves. In Vietnam 11 of my friends were killed for illegally crossing the border,” said MK, who did not give dates for when his friends were killed.

Another asylum seeker, YG, is a 45-year-old dentist with five children who used to secretly teach the Quran to children in his community — a common practice among Uighurs.

He was caught and punished several times and had to move several times to survive. His dentistry license was ultimately revoked, and when he relocated and started another practice, it too was shut down.

In 2006 he obtained a passport on the pretext of wanting to travel to Pakistan, but when he attempted to make a hajj with that passport, it was confiscated, and he was fined. Fed up by the injustice, he decided to emigrate, but it was not as easy as he thought.

“I was able to take only two of my children with me because I just couldn’t secure passports for all of them. I had to pay $5,000 to $6,000 in bribes for each passport and had to leave the rest of my kids behind with my mother,” he said.

He was unable to reach his children when a mosque in the town where his mother and his children live was the target of a deadly raid. Two months ago, he met someone from the same town who arrived in Turkey and informed him that his older children are still alive. He still does not know what has become of the rest of his family.

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