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Hundreds of Uighur refugee children are orphans in Turkey after parents disappear

Children protesting in Turkey [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 January, 2020

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Uighur children are being orphaned after their parents travel to China to visit family, never to be heard from again.
Hundreds of Uighur children have become orphaned in Turkey after their parents disappeared on visits to China, which is cracking down on its minority Muslim population.

A school on the outskirts of Istanbul is one of the only places in the country where Uighur child refugees from China can study their language and culture.

Having fled a worsening crackdown on Uighur Muslims in northwest China, some of their parents thought it was still safe to return occasionally for business and to visit family, only to disappear into an internment camp, which China calls "vocation centres".

Out of just over a hundred pupils at the school, 26 have lost one parent to the camps, seven have lost both, says its head Habibullah Kuseni.

Nine-year-old Fatima's father has been gone for three years, and she has only vague memories of her home.

She remembers watching television with him: she wanted cartoons, but he liked watching the news especially about Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Her father flew back to China from time to time for business before anyone knew about the camps in the Xinjiang region.

"I thought he would come back, but he never did," she told AFP.

Exiled Uighur activists in November released evidence of nearly 500 camps and prisons being used against their ethnic group in China, saying the overall number of inmates could be "far greater" than the one million cited.

When news of the camps first emerged in 2017, Beijing initially denied their existence. 

Later, it claimed they were "voluntary" vocational centres aimed at combating extremism by teaching people Mandarin and job skills. 

But leaked internal documents have shown they are run like prisons, while critics say they are aimed at eradicating local culture and religion of Uighurs and other, mostly Muslim, minorities.

50,000 Uighur refugees in Turkey

With some 50,000 Uighur refugees in Turkey, there are many more children like Fatima or even worse off.

Tursunay, 15, hasn't seen or spoken to either of her parents since July 2017. 

"Don't worry about us," they said, in their last phone call on a trip back to China. 

They said it was strange their passports had been confiscated but were sure it would be resolved soon, but they have not been heard from since.

Tursunay said the Chinese government had been watching her family. "Why are they watching us, papa?" he would ask his father, when cameras were installed at the entrance to their apartment, and his father told him it was because they were Muslims.
 
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Tursunay and her little sister do not have any communication with any member of their family in China.

"I try to stay optimistic and remember that it's not my parents who have done this to me," she said. 

Many children inside Xinjiang are also reportedly without parents. 

Human Rights Watch said in September that Chinese authorities have housed "countless" children whose parents are detained or in exile in state-run child welfare institutions and boarding schools without parental consent or access.

Erdogan may bend to economic pressure

Many Turks feel historic bonds with the Uighurs, either as fellow Muslims or as part of the same Turkic-speaking ethnic group. 

Back-to-back protests were held in December in Istanbul, one by Islamists and another by ultra-nationalists. 

Muslim women protesting in Turkey [Getty]

"Haven't the cries of our brothers from East Turkestan reached you?" said Musa Bayoglu during one outside the Chinese consulate, using Uighur activists' preferred name for their region which is strictly outlawed by China. 

"Haven't the screams of our sisters passed through the walls of your palaces?"

Earlier this year, Turkey's foreign ministry called China's crackdown on Uighurs "a great embarrassment for humanity" but since then has been largely silent on the issue. 

When Erdogan spoke at the UN General Assembly in September, he reeled off a list of Muslim groups facing persecution, from Palestinians to Myanmar's Rohingyas. Uighurs were notably absent. 

Many fear he is bending to Chinese economic pressure, though Uighurs in Turkey remain hugely grateful for the asylum the country has offered.

"They are providing 50,000 Uighurs a peaceful place to live," said one Uighur activist in Istanbul. 

"No other Muslim country did that, no Western country did that."

The China Cables

The leaked internal documents detailed how Beijing runs the camps.

They included instructions that inmates should be cut off from the outside world and monitored at all times -- including toilet breaks -- to prevent escapes. 

They also indicated that people should be held for at least a year, and released only after being assessed for "ideological transformation, study and training, and compliance with discipline." 

At the Uighur school in Istanbul, such stories take a toll.

"I still want to listen to the news, but when I hear about it, I feel bad, uneasy; my stomach aches," says 12-year-old Rufine, whose mother disappeared two years ago when she went back to look after Rufine's sick grandmother.

"Just coming on holiday to a Muslim country like Turkey would be enough to send you to a camp," the headteacher revealed.

"The Uighurs are facing extinction," adds 39-year-old teacher Mahmut Utfi. "Our culture, our language. I see my job as a duty."

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