Istanbul's Uyghur community protest outside the Chinese Consulate despite the cost of reprisals

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On November 30, Uyghurs living in Turkey staged a protest outside the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul against China's stringent zero-COVID policies and in support of recent country-wide protests. Local police at the scene threatened the protesters with deportations and told them to leave the premises. According to daily local news platform Evrensel, the group showed up outside the consulate at 5 a.m. local time.

An Uyghur activist living in Turkey shared the following video from the scene:

We have been in front of the Chinese Consulate since 05:00 this morning. Why this early? Because otherwise we are prevented from approaching the consulate, so we yell at the sea. But despite us coming this early, look at what we were confronted with! They said they will deport us!

“We are going to sweep you down the street,” a man in a hat tells one Uyghur woman who asks him not to yell. He then proceeds to tell the group to move down. “We are going to first arrest, then deport you,” the man is heard yelling minutes later.

In response, the Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu said it was upsetting to witness earlier treatment of “our Uyghur siblings.” Addressing the matter via his Twitter account the minister wrote, “we hereby express our regret and apology and inform that an investigation has been launched.

“Respect the Republic of Turkey,” the same man was heard yelling in the video after an Uyghur woman said their interlocutor was China.

In another video, a young man breaks into tears, as he shares pictures of his family whom he has not seen in seven years but who died in a recent fire. “If I can't get to them [pointing at the consulate] what else can I do?!” he asks in tears.

So far protests outside of Chinese embassies and consulates and elsewhere in public squares and university campuses been reported in Sydney, Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York and Toronto according to news reports.

Inspired by the global response, Uyghurs living in Turkey also decided to join protests. One account on Twitter shared the following tweet:

Why is it not allowed to protest outside the Chinese representatives in Turkey while across the world this is allowed including in Turkey, where protests been held outside other country representatives.

Uyghurs in Turkey

Uyghurs who have managed to escape to Turkey enjoyed government support for their cause until President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan changed his tone with mainland China. “Following a sharp economic decline in the aftermath of a military coup in July 2016, Erdoğan’s tone changed. The national currency depreciated 29 percent, dealing the economy a major blow, as relations with the US soured and Turkey swapped its parliamentary system for a presidential one in 2018. The economy has hardly recovered since then,” wrote Filip Noubel, Global Voices Managing Editor in this piece in September 2021. China came to the rescue through generous loans, and other economic and commercial ventures. In 2017, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu assured Chinese counterparts that Turkey won't allow, “any activities targeting or opposing China,” promising to “take measures to eliminate any media reports targeting China.” Since 2016, the two countries have signed ten bilateral agreements.

The sudden U-turn was most recently reflected in Turkey's decision to refuse citizenship to some Uyghur refugees, with local authorities, “telling them they were suspected risks to Turkey's ‘national security’ or ‘social order’,” according to Voice of America reporting. Others have reportedly been refused asylum and long-term residency. There have also been reports of deportations via third countries. Turkey is home to the largest Uyghur diaspora in the world since the 1950s. Some estimates put the number of Uyghurs living in Turkey at 50,000.

Citizenship refusal is not the only reported fear. Although Turkey is yet to ratify an extradition treaty that the two countries signed in 2017, and was ratified by China in 2020, Uyghurs living Turkey fear it can serve as a “legal window for the deportation from Turkey.” According to China’s vice minister of foreign affairs, Le Yucheng, when the two countries were negotiating the treaty, they disagreed over the time stamp on the status of the nationality of the person(s) requested for deportation according to Voice of America reporting at the time:

Turkey proposed that if the person requested for extradition had acquired the nationality of the requested country when the extradition request was made, the person should be recognized as a national of the requested country. The Chinese side, however, argued such a proposition could encourage criminals to evade extradition by changing their nationality.

Eventually, both sides agreed “not to specify the time for nationality recognition in the treaty, but to hand it over to the competent authorities in accordance with their respective domestic laws in practice.”

In a statement issued by the World Uyghur Congress in December 2020, Turkey was urged not to ratify the treaty. “If adopted by Turkey, the extradition treaty is likely to become another instrument of persecution for China, aiding the Chinese government in its coordinated efforts to forcibly return Uyghurs living abroad,” read the statement.

But even deportations ring hallow when stories of scores of activists living in Turkey who have spoken up about what is happening back in China have received death threats from the Chinese consulate in Istanbul while weekly disappearances are common in Uyghur communities living in Istanbul.

All of this only amplifies the importance of today's demonstration outside the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul as reprisals for something that would be common in other parts of the world can be far more dangerous for the Uyghurs living in Turkey.

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