Uighur Muslims who fled a crackdown in China for the supposed safety of the Muslim world say they now fear the long arm of Beijing as far away as Cairo.
Muhamad, a 22-year-old student of Islamic studies, was in the Egyptian capital in July last year when security forces launched a crackdown on the Uighur community.
Muhamad – a pseudonym for his safety – watched from his house as his friends who tried to escape were arrested in the streets. Others were detained at airports as they tried to flee the country.
Hundreds were detained. While many were later released, Amnesty International said at least 22 students were deported to China, a nightmare scenario as Uighurs in Islamic countries often face terrorism charges and prolonged jail sentences upon return.
In the wake of the security campaign, most of the community fled to Turkey. For those who remained, life became increasingly difficult.
“We used to get together for occasions and religious sermons, now the Uighurs left in Egypt live in fear. They put their head down and try to live under the radar,” Muhamad told Asia Times.
Clout of Beijing
Uighurs have been migrating from Xinjiang region in waves since 1949, when the autonomous Muslim-majority region came under the control of the Communist People’s Republic of China.
Among the hundreds of thousands of Uighurs who left, most settled in the Muslim countries of Central Asia or the Arab World due to cultural proximity and economic and logistical practicality.
In recent years, that migration intensified with the Chinese government’s crackdown on the ethnic group, which it accuses of adopting separatist ideas and has blamed for terrorist attacks.
But even as reports of “reeducation camps” for Uighurs prompted international concern, Muslim countries have become increasingly dangerous for the community.
China has positioned itself as an increasingly desirable ally for Muslim governments and its growing clout has made it possible for the emerging economy to request extraditions of its nationals and it expects silence on the Uighur issue.
Central Asian Muslim states, among the most vulnerable to China’s economic pressure, have been deporting Uighurs in the hundreds for years, according to Australia-based Uighur activist Alip Erkin. In recent years, Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also followed suit.
In June 2017, the Egyptian and Chinese governments signed a security cooperation agreement. One month later, Egyptian police launched the crackdown Muhamad witnessed, roaming Uighur neighborhoods and rounding up hundreds.
Omer Kanat, the director of the Uighur Human Rights Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, says the Chinese security threat has extended to break down bonds within Uighur diaspora communities.
Kanat, who has been collecting Uighur testimonies, says the Chinese government coerces Uighurs abroad to spy on members of the community, making them afraid to speak openly with their neighbors, even halfway around the globe.
Usman, a pseudonym, a 26-year old Uighur doing his masters in Islamic studies at Azhar University in Cairo, says that after the 2017 crackdown, the once close-knit Uighur community in Cairo completely disintegrated and people started isolating themselves.
“People are now scared that if they get together, the police will come. You wouldn’t even find three Uighurs gathered together now,” he told Asia Times.
Usman offers Arabic and Quran tutoring for members of the community. But while he used to have eight students, that number has dropped to two. The others either left the country or stopped engaging with their fellow Uighurs.
The crackdown by the Egyptian security forces took the Uighur community by surprise, Usman reflects. Most people had so much trust in the Egyptian government they did not believe warnings that circulated months before the crackdown.
Fearing for family
Back in China, the government has been arresting and even torturing relatives of Uighurs abroad to pressure them to come back, rights groups say.
According to Amnesty International, Chinese authorities detained relatives of several students studying in Egypt in 2017 to coerce the students to return, then tortured and detained them upon their arrival.
Beijing has also succeeded in almost completely severing communications between locals and exiles.
The crackdown on Uighurs both at home and abroad intensified in August 2016 when Community Party veteran Chen Quanguo was appointed to run Xinjiang, according to those interviewed.
Staring in 2017, it became apparent that the slightest communication between Uighurs in Xinjiang region and family members or friends abroad would result in the imprisonment of those back home.
Uighurs abroad now ask foreigners visiting Xinjiang to bring back news of their families, or they follow the newsfeed of WeChat, the most widely used chat application in China, to get bits of information on the community back home, Erkin says.
Erkin says he has not been able to obtain information about his wife, incarcerated in a camp in Xinjiang, since 2017. His family, like many others, removed him from all social media and chat applications last year.
Turkey turns cold
Turkey, once a vocal supporter of the Turkic-origin Uighurs, is now silent in the face of the escalating crackdown they face.
Uighurs in Turkey say that while they remain relatively safe, they are not as free to practice their religion and engage in activism as they once were.
Abduweli Ayup, a Uighur activist in Istanbul, says that in the past Turkey’s large Uighur community was able to hold political events in major squares. Now, they are only given permits for isolated locations.
It is “no coincidence” that China has boosted economic and political ties with Turkey in recent years, says Michael Caster, a human rights advocate and author of a book on enforced disappearance in China.
“China recognized the history of support from Turkey to Uighur people and wanted to dampen that,” he said, adding: “It’s true that Turkey is not rounding up Uighurs and deporting them, but that’s setting the bar too low.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu promised during a visit to Beijing in August 2017 to curb all opposition activities against China in Turkey as well as eliminate all negative media reports on China.
Ayup says it is not only political activities that have been curtailed in Turkey. The Chinese embassy in Ankara stopped renewing passports for Uighurs, putting their lives on hold.
This complaint was echoed in interviews carried out by Asia Times with Uighurs in four countries, who say they have also been denied other official papers from their embassies, including marriage and birth certificates.
When Ayup went to the embassy in 2016 to renew his passport, he was told he would need to return to his hometown in China.
That prospect is unthinkable for Ayup, who was arrested in 2013 for founding schools to teach the Uighur mother language in Xinjiang. The former linguistics professor spent 15 months there and then fled to Turkey.
Like many of the diaspora, he lives with the constant anguish over his family situation back home. His three siblings have been in jail since 2017 and he has no way to learn their latest news.
Omer Kanat says the restriction has devastated the lives of Uighurs whose testimonies he has documented, as they are unable to renew and register necessary documents and parents are unable to send their unregistered children to schools.
Ayup, once a visiting scholar at Turkish universities, now depends on freelance translations to get by. He does not have the paperwork necessary for official employment.