Exiled Uyghurs in Turkey Fear Sellout to China in Exchange for Vaccine

Opposition legislators in Turkey are accusing Ankara’s leaders of secretly selling out Uyghurs to China in exchange for coronavirus vaccines, fearing that Beijing is using the vaccines as leverage to win passage of an extradition treaty. 

Although no hard evidence has yet emerged for a quid pro quo, these legislators and the Uyghurs fear that Beijing is using the vaccines as leverage to win passage of an extradition treaty. Tens of millions of vials of promised Chinese vaccines have not yet been delivered. The treaty was signed years ago but suddenly ratified by China in December, and could come before Turkish lawmakers as soon as this month.

Uighurs say the bill, once law, could bring their ultimate life-threatening nightmare: Deportation back to a country they fled to avoid mass detention. More than a million Uighurs and other largely Muslim minorities have been swept into prisons and detention camps in China, in what China calls an anti-terrorism measure but the US has declared a genocide.

Uighurs have traveled to Turkey for decades in search of refuge from political and religious repression, but recent arrests and a proposed extradition treaty with China are making many fear the country is no longer a haven. While arrests of Uighurs, mostly on allegations related to terrorism, have been occurring in Turkey for several years, they have escalated in recent months, lawyers say. 

Turkey is largely reliant on China’s Sinovac vaccine to immunize its population against the virus, which has infected some 2.5 million and killed over 26,000.

Both Turkish and Chinese authorities insist that the extradition bill isn’t meant to target Uighurs for deportation. Chinese state media called such concerns “smearing,” and foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin denied any connection between vaccines and the treaty.

Signs of strong economic ties abound, big and small: An exporter with business in China was appointed Turkey’s ambassador to Beijing. A Chinese-funded $1.7 billion coal plant is rising on the banks of Turkey’s Mediterranean sea. Istanbul’s airport obtained the world’s first “Chinese Friendly Airport” certification, setting aside check-in counters to receive thousands of tourists from #Shanghai and Beijing. And President Erdogan’s once-fiery rhetoric has turned dull and diplomatic, praising China’s leaders for their assistance.

China also began requesting the extradition of many more Uighurs from Turkey. In one leaked 2016 extradition request first reported by Axios and obtained independently by The Associated Press, Chinese officials asked for the extradition of a Uighur former cellphone vendor, accusing him of promoting the Islamic State terror group online. The vendor was arrested but eventually released and cleared of charges.

Many of the Uighurs dwelling in Turkey have fled repression in China’s northwestern Xinjiang area, the place authorities have rolled out a network of internment camps and high-tech surveillance in current years to manage native Turkic Muslim minority teams.

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