A 9-year-old Muslim Uyghur girl living in Turkey has called for help from the international community to be reunited with five family members, who have been detained in Thailand for more than a year after illegally entering the country while escaping persecution in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region.
Rahlia – who escaped from a Thai immigration detention center in September along with her then-pregnant mother and three of her siblings – said she had not spoken with her father, two other siblings, uncle or cousin for eight months, and asked for assistance in bringing them to Turkey.
“We traveled from [Xinjiang’s] Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) city to Cambodia, Cambodia to Vietnam, Vietnam to Thailand, Thailand to Malaysia and Malaysia to Turkey – using back roads the entire way,” she said.
“But my father, my uncle, my cousin and some of my siblings are still in Thailand.”
The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority within China, and mostly live in the western Xinjiang region. Uyghurs also are spread across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkey.
Rahlia said she had been happy during the eight months since resettling in Turkey’s Kayseri province, where she was attending school. But she misses her family members dearly and recently sent a letter (pictured below) to her father at the Thai refugee detention center.
“I wrote a letter to my father because I miss him and my brothers so much,” she said.
“I wish we could be reunited—even spending one day together with them would be sufficient for me. Please bring my relatives to me. That is all I hope for and that is what I will pray for.”
In her letter, Rahlia asks her father to endure while they wait to see one another again.
“Since we separated, I am left with a saddened heart. But father, be patient and I will be patient and, if Allah wills it, we will unite again for sure,” the letter reads.
“Father, if we cannot reunite in this life, we may join one another in heaven … Being patient is very important in this journey, but I miss you so much.”
Rahlia’s family members are among about 70 Turkic-speaking, Muslim Uyghurs held in a government-run refugee detention center in Padang Besar, a sub-district in southern Thailand’s Songkhla province, since March 2014. Visitors have described the facility as cramped with unhygienic conditions.
Many have complained of worsening conditions and poor food quality, and detainees held a hunger strike in January to demand that authorities improve the situation at the facility. One ethnic Uyghur boy detained there died last December after contracting tuberculosis.
The 70 detainees - and some 300 others being held at centers in the Thai cities of Bangkok, Rayong and Trat – have remained in limbo more than a year into their detention, with Beijing demanding they be repatriated to China.
Rahlia’s mother, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that her family had traveled into Thailand from Vietnam on March 10 last year and were among a group of 220 Uyghurs detained 12 days later while in hiding in the forest.
She said Thai authorities placed them in the two-story Padang Besar center and promised to release them within six months. But when they were not freed, she escaped the facility along with three of her children and carrying her unborn baby.
“We escaped, walked through the woods despite our hunger, and entered Malaysia, where we then went on to Turkey,” she said.
“The good people of Turkey are helping us with our expenses. There are at least 500-600 Uyghurs here. We have mosques to pray at, schools to attend, and other members of the Uyghur community visit with us.”
But she lamented her detained family members, who she said she had been unable even to speak with by telephone since authorities beefed up security measures at the Padang Besar center in the wake of their escape, and called on Thailand to allow them to be reunited in Turkey.
During the last two 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.
Last month, a representative of a Uyghur organization said that 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.
He said the Uyghurs were willing to “risk everything because of the persecution that the Chinese government has brought upon them,” he said, adding that it was becoming “impossible” for Uyghurs to enjoy human rights in China.