Cengiz, once a taxi driver, is one of hundreds of Uighur who flee China every year; this Turkic-speaking Muslim minority makes up 60 percent of the population of Xinjiang province in northwestern China.
Not wanting us to disclose his full name due to fears for the safety of his relatives back in Xinjiang, Cengiz tells his harrowing story through Ezizi, a Qashgar-born Uighur translator and guide in Istanbul.
Having finally been reunited with his 13 children and three wives in a house in Istanbul’s Sefakoy district two months ago, Cengiz – sporting long hair and a beard – is going through difficult times financially but is at least sure of his safety.
Like many of his people, he has sought a better life outside of the communist country where human rights groups report that Uighur face widespread and systematic religious, cultural and language restrictions and discrimination.
One of these restrictions, for example, is a ban on wearing burqas in public. Last year, Muslims were asked not to fast during the month of Ramadan.
Although the Chinese government claims that measures such as these are necessary to combat “terrorism,” civil rights groups argue that it is such restrictions which fuel Uighur grievances.
Escaping from Xingjian to Turkey is difficult. When Cengiz decided to escape from China with his four-year-old son, he travelled to the Vietnamese border where he met human traffickers. He was pessimistic that this journey would have a happy ending but was determined to take the risk.
“There were Chinese traffickers who smuggle you to Vietnam. After that, those traffickers hand you over to other smugglers. There is a chain of human traffickers. If you are lucky, this journey ends in Malaysia,” Cengiz says.
The trip is also expensive: it cost Cengiz about 24,000 Chinese Yuan ($3,800) in total. The total price varies according to size of the group, season and political factors.
Ezizi is familiar with tales of this dangerous traffic: “Sometimes, border guards of a particular country take extra measures to tighten security which also increases the difficulty of crossing from one country to another.”
Unlike Cengiz, Ezizi – bearded and in his forties – arrived in Turkey through legal means because he is occupied with tourism: “I had the liberty to move out of the country and had a passport. When I visited Kyrgyzstan in 2002, I applied to the Turkish embassy to get a visa.”
For those not so fortunate, the trip to Turkey is very perilous. Sometimes the immigrant travels on foot and sometimes by car, Cengiz says. “You have to pass through rivers and climb mountains. Some people died while passing through a river as a result of seasonal floods.” For others, death comes at the hands of security guards.
Ezizi claims that some of his comrades were executed by a Vietnamese firing squad while others are deported to Chinese officials, which can mean death by torture for Uighur.
For Cengiz, it took ten days to reach Malaysia. “The shortest trip takes six days,” Ezizi says. Illegal immigrants received fake Turkish documents in Thailand: “You have to pay an additional $1,000 to get your passport.”
Arriving into Malaysia safely does not mean the mission is accomplished. A Uighur has to surrender to Malaysian security guards in order to reach the final destination: Turkey.
Firstly, an immigrant has to pay a fine for crossing into Malaysia by an illegal route. The Malaysian authorities then order deportation to the country where the fake passport belongs. “This means Turkey,” Ezizi maintains. Very few tried to get another country’s passport. Mainly, they take forged Turkish passports as “other countries do not accept Uighur migrants.”
Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country just like Turkey. But Uighur generally do not feel safe there, according to Ezizi.
“Some corrupt officers would charge you money even if you are waiting to be deported. If you do not pay the money, those officers can send you to jail and that complicates the process,” he says.
Worse, the government in Kuala Lumpur deported some Uighur back to China. In 2012, the Malaysian government sent six Uighur back to China. Last October, Malaysian officials had raided two apartments to discover 155 Uighur. Human rights associations called on the Kuala Lumpur government not to deport them to China.
“Other than Turkey, there is no place Uighur can feel safe. Turkey does not deport those people to China or send them to a third country,” Ezizi says, adding that “99 percent” of Uighur who illegally leave China end up in Turkey.
There is public awareness for Uighur ordeals in Turkey. An online petition was drawn up to call on Ankara to intervene to prevent the deportation of 300 Uighur by Thailand back to China last November.
Amid the increasing public pressure, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced Turkey’s willingness to shelter those people and said he had talked to his Thai and Chinese counterparts to find a solution.
Ezizi points out that when a Uighur arrives into Istanbul with a fake passport, the person is released after a short judicial process: “Sometimes, that person can be sent to jail temporarily but would be released quickly.”
Cengiz has now joined an estimated 1,500-strong Uighur community in Istanbul’s Sefakoy district. He is enjoying family time and waiting to get his official residence car.
After that, Cengiz says he is going to learn Turkish to have a better life, but in the meantime he faces a struggle: his electricity and natural gas services have been cut off because of overdue bills. Yet, even in the dark and the cold, freedom is priceless.