A group of 173 ethnic Uyghur women and children have arrived in Turkey for resettlement after being detained for more than a year by Thai immigration authorities for illegally entering the country while fleeing persecution in northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region, sources said Wednesday.
Seyit Tumturk, vice president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the group had arrived at the airport in the commercial capital Istanbul early on Tuesday.
“They make up a portion of the Uyghurs who were arrested in March 2014 in Thailand,” said Tumturk, who is also chairman of Turkey-based Uyghur organization the East Turkestan Culture and Cooperation Association.
“They are mostly women and kids—around 120 kids and about 50 women. Hopefully, the men [still in detention] will be granted this kind of chance in the near future.”
Tumturk said that after arriving at the airport around 6:00 a.m., the Uyghurs’ documentation was quickly processed and they were able to “enter into Turkey safely,” with some staying in Istanbul and others headed to Kayseri province, where many Uyghurs have settled.
Gungor Yavuzarslan, the president of the International Journalists Association of Turkish-Speaking Countries, was quoted by the Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) network Wednesday confirming that 173 Uyghurs had arrived in the country a day earlier, and calling their acceptance a “diplomatic victory for Turkey on the international stage.”
A Uyghur scholar living in the capital Ankara also confirmed the group’s arrival to RFA, but said Turkish officials had sought to downplay the move amid ongoing internal political negotiations.
“I am aware of this news, but the Turkish government is trying to form a coalition [between the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement party (MHP)] following the parliamentary election, so they do not want to publicize it,” he said, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity.
Earlier on Wednesday, Thai lawyer Worrasit Piriyawoboon told RFA in Bangkok that 171 Uyghurs had left Thailand on a flight for Turkey “two days ago,” citing a source from the Thai Immigration Police Bureau.
The reason for the discrepancy in the number of Uyghurs who had left Thailand for Turkey was not immediately clear.
“I had filed a court appeal for the release of the 17 members of the Telkimakan family [who were among the detainees], but now some of them have been freed, so an immigration official asked me to drop the appeal,” Worrasit said.
“However, to my surprise, a couple from the family—Ashan and Rukiye, who testified in a Thai court for their release—are still in custody.”
He did not provide specific information about which of the family’s members had been included in the group that flew to Turkey.
The Uyghur arrivals in Turkey were among about 370 Turkic-speaking, Muslim Uyghurs held in Thai government-run refugee detention centers in Padang Besar—in Songkhla province’s Sadao district—and the cities of Bangkok, Rayong and Trat, since March 2014 in what visitors have described as cramped and unhygienic conditions.
Many have complained of worsening conditions and poor food quality, and detainees held a hunger strike in January to demand authorities improve the situation at the Padang Besar facility. One ethnic Uyghur boy detained there died last December after contracting tuberculosis.
The detainees had remained in limbo more than a year into their detention, with Beijing demanding they be repatriated to China.
During the last couple of years, Uyghurs have been leaving China in droves to escape persecution and repression by authorities who consider them separatists and terrorists and have cracked down on their religion and culture. Chinese authorities have blamed an upsurge of violence in Xinjiang since 2012 on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
According to Tumturk, Uyghurs from all parts of Xinjiang are relying on networks of Chinese smugglers to take them across the border into neighboring Southeast Asian countries en route to their final destination Turkey, citing those detained in Thailand, a key way station.
“China deprives them of their human dignity, their human rights, and religious freedom in every possible way, so they head to Turkey to live like human beings,” he said.
“Unfortunately, some of them were arrested in Thailand in March 2014. So we are thankful to the Turkish government for bringing [many of them] them to Turkey. It is a big relief.”
On Tuesday, Turkey's Foreign Ministry said it expressed “deep concern” to China about reports that the country has instilled a fasting ban on Uyghurs during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, according to the Turkey-based Daily Sabah.
In January, Turkey had accepted more than 500 Uyghurs who sought refuge in the country, the report said.
In recent years, several Asian nations—including Thailand—have bowed to demands by Beijing to repatriate Uyghurs fleeing persecution in Xinjiang, despite warnings from rights groups and the Uyghur exile community that they may face prison sentences upon their return.
Reported by Erkin for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.