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, sources said Wednesday.
Thailand had detained the Uyghurs for entering the country illegally while fleeing persecution in northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region.
Seyit Tumturk, vice president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said the group had arrived at the airport in 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 the East Turkestan Culture and Cooperation Association, a Uyghur organization based in Turkey.
“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.”
After landing at the airport around 6 a.m., the Uyghurs’ documentation was quickly processed and they were able to “enter into Turkey safely,” he said.
Some were staying in Istanbul and others headed to Kayseri province, where many Uyghurs have settled.
The Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) network quoted Gungor Yavuzarslan, president of the International Journalists Association of Turkish-Speaking Countries, as confirming Wednesday that 173 Uyghurs had arrived in the country a day earlier.
He called their acceptance a “diplomatic victory for Turkey on the international stage.”
A Uyghur scholar living in Ankara, the Turkish capital, also confirmed the group’s arrival, but said that Turkish officials had sought to play down 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 on condition of anonymity.
Earlier on Wednesday, Thai lawyer Worrasit Piriyawoboon said 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 departed 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 in Bangkok.
“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 Uyghurs who arrived in Turkey were among about 370 Turkic-speaking, Muslim Uyghurs held since March 2014 in Thai government-run refugee detention centers in Padang Besar – a sub-district in southern Thailand’s Songkhla province – and the cities of Bangkok, Rayong and Trat. Visitors have described the facilities as cramped and unhygienic.
Many have complained of worsening conditions and poor food quality. In January, detainees held a hunger strike to demand that authorities improve the situation at the Padang Besar facility.
An 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 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.
According to Tumturk, Uyghurs from all parts of Xinjiang rely on networks of Chinese smugglers to take them across the border into neighboring Southeast Asian countries en route to their final destination Turkey.
Tumturk cited 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 had imposed 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.
Pimuk Rakkanam contributed to this report.