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Curtain Coming Down on Erdogan’s Excellent Uyghur Adventure?

To demonstrate that it’s possible, for me anyway, to acquire a lot of useful information in a short period of time via Twitter, I offer for your consideration this series of exchanges (with multipart tweets stitched together for continuity and clarity):

Tweets From Aleppo ‏@halabtweets 

The whole northern countryside of #Aleppo is crawling with mercenaries/terrorists from Caucasus, Central Asia, and Chinese Ugyur. #Turkey

chinahand (me)

hmm. wonder if this tweeter knows stuff or just says stuff. Interesting to explore if any of Uyghurs given haven by Turkey have gone on to Syria with any kind of Turkish govt encouragement or knowledge.

Christoph Germann ‏@newgreatgame 

Chechens living in Turkey have been forced to go to Syria http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/11/turkey-chechen-murder-syria-link.html# … same probably true of Uyghurs living in Turkey

chinahand ‏

only a few hundred Uyghurs in Turkey as I understand. If TK subsidized & monitored them in place, PRC might think it’s acceptable. But if TK sending them to Syria to get trained/radicalized/networked, PRC will be seriously PO’d IMO

Christoph Germann ‏@newgreatgame 

China tries to prevent Turkey from hosting more Uyghurs http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/28/us-china-turkey-thailand-idUSKCN0JC0X920141128 … makes sense given that NED-funded World Uyghur Congress, etc. “take care” of Uyghurs living in Turkey

http://christophgermann.blogspot.de/2015/01/the-new-great-game-round-up-83.html …IMO that’s why Global Times broke story of arrest of Turks/Uyghurs in Shanghai, which happened last Nov https://porkinspolicyreview.wordpress.com/2015/02/07/porkins-great-game-episode-5-east-turkestan-exposed/ …

 

chinahand

 

‏tks. v/ interesting podcast. I think one area of interest for PRC was that TK consulate replaced “lost” passports.  I tend to think Turkish government militancy policy one of “idiotic entrepreneurship” rather than carefully managed policy i.e. set up a bunch of militant-enabling orgs w/ arms-length deniability, let them run wild, then try to rein them in when they become too much of a liability. Chinese media naming Turkey (& PRC MOFI spox Hong Lei endorsing) definitely a shot across the bow. Will be interesting to see if Turkey makes some publicly Uyghur-unfriendly gesture to please PRC.  Hong Lei’s statement that report “extremely accurate” http://tinyurl.com/pob3ccv  a major tell. At same time, report was run in GT, not official govt outlet Xinhua, to soften the blow a bit.

Christoph Germann ‏@newgreatgame 

Yes, Turkey immediately sent its police chief to Beijing to calm the waves http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2015-01/26/c_133948355.htm … & http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/905261.shtml …

chinahand ‏

& 155 Uyghurs on Turkish passports in Malaysia! That raised some flags. Tks v/much for v/interesting & informative exchange

Christoph Germann ‏@newgreatgame

Kunming attack suspects also had Turkish passports http://en.people.cn/n/2015/0213/c90882-8850247.html …

The knowledgeable and cordial Christoph Germann, by the way, runs the New Great Game blog over at Sibel Edmonds’ shop and, as can be seen, stays on top of the news from the region.  I am bookmarking NGG and look forward to visiting regularly.

To amplify on the exchange, it’s an acknowledged fact that Turkey is hospitable to refugee Uyghurs from Xinjiang and, as a result, unhappy Uyghurs in Xinjiang are eager to go to Turkey.

Turkey indulging its pretensions as protector of the world’s Turkish-speaking peoples by harboring a few hundred impoverished refugees might be acceptable to the PRC; but setting up a pipeline to encourage Uyghur emigration and, possibly, recruiting Uyghurs to join the Syrian uprising against Assad certainly is not.

For one thing, although the PRC has nuanced its support of Assad, it is dead set against the strategy of foreign-supported insurrection against the Syrian government.  For another, the PRC is undoubtedly leery of Xinjiang Uyghurs acquiring training, radical ideology, and global jihadist connections while fighting in Syria.

So I was struck by the original poster’s complaint that northern Syria is “crawling with mercenaries/terrorists from Caucasus, Central Asia, and Chinese Ugyur”.

Case not yet proven, I would say.  There is no documented instance of a Uyghur fighting in one of Syria’s myriad militias as yet (one Hui Chinese showed up), so perhaps the original tweet was more in the line of general venting about Turkey funneling foreign fighters into Syria.  Time, I guess, will tell.

However, it does not strike me as implausible on principle.  Veterans of the beleaguered Chechen independence movement have found shelter in Turkey and employment in Syria.

The AI Monitor link provided by Germann describes a rather sinister situation for Turkey’s 2000 Chechen refugees where seemingly private appeals to join jihad are apparently backed up with the decidedly government resource of threatening deportation for the recalcitrant:

Though Turkey tolerates the Chechen refugees, many lack residence permits and live in destitute conditions under a constant risk of deportation, activists say. This life in limbo led many Chechens to acquiesce to blackmail-like pressures to join the Syrian war, according to Abrek Onlu, the slain activist’s nephew and member of the Justice for Medet Committee, an advocacy group created by members of Turkey’s ethnic Caucasian community.

“Not all Chechens volunteered to go to Syria. Some went there unwillingly. They were presented with two options: to go to Syria or face deportation … Individuals who were personally the subject [of such pressure] recount confidentially how certain people would come to convey them this message,” Abrek Onlu told Al-Monitor, reluctant to give further details.

Another committee member claimed Islamic civic groups in Turkey were active in the recruitment of fighters. “Some Islamic nongovernmental groups became closely involved in dispatching fighters to Syria. … Those groups are known to have exerted influence on Chechens living both in and outside [refugee] camps to join the war,” Kuban Kural told an online journal.

One can imagine that one of the shadowy Turkish organizations equally concerned with refugee welfare and with providing cannon fodder for Turkey’s Syrian adventure might turn its intention to impoverished and desperate Uyghurs as a human resource similar to the exiled Chechens.

Whether the Turkish government is actively and knowingly recruiting Uyghurs to fight in Syria is a murky business cloaked by secrecy and deniability.  Smoothing the way for Uyghurs to come to Turkey is more of a matter of public policy and record.

In early February 2015, Al Jazeera sympathetically profiled Uyghur refugees residing in Turkey.  In one case history, AJ’s reporter noted the assistance provided by the Turkish embassy to Uyghur refugees:

After three months of travel, they arrived in Malaysia, where they stayed for nine months.

He said he was discovered traveling with a fake passport at the airport on his way out of Malaysia, as other Uighurs in transit have been, was arrested and thrown into prison for three months along with his family. His wife, who had been pregnant throughout the trek, gave birth to their seventh child in prison.

He sought assistance from the Turkish Embassy in Malaysia, and after four months in Istanbul, he and his family have settled in Kayseri.

An article in Hurriyet Daily News reported that the Turkish government is not only officially hospitable to Uyghur refugees in transit and on arrival, it is also facilitating their departure from Xinjiang:

A month ago [January 2015], 500 Uighur Turks fled the western Chinese region of Xinjiang and settled in state housing previously used as official residences for police officers in the city of Kayseri.

Some also said they flew to Turkey with the help of Turkish government; however, they do not want to give the details of the journey because their relatives are trying to flee using the same methods.

Turkish travel documents are a key element in expediting Uyghur travel to Turkey.  For instance, the Malaysian authorities detained 155 Uyghurs with Turkish passports characterized as “forged”.

A Turkish paper described the central importance of Turkish travel documents to Uyghur refugees:

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.”

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.

The LA Times also visited the Uyghur emigre community in Kayseri and touched on the passport issue:

It took about a month in Bangkok to plan the next stage of their journey, the men said. They linked up with an organized crime network from Turkey and paid about $3,500 for forged Turkish passports, which they used to travel overland to Malaysia.

Malaysia, Mohammed said, was “worse than Thailand.” “People would say: ‘Give us your wallet, give us your jewelry or we will report you,’” he recalled.

In November after 11 months in Malaysia, they boarded a plane bound for Istanbul. There, Turkish immigration authorities discovered the forged passports.

“They said, ‘You are Uighur?’” Mohammed recalled. “They confiscated them and let us come in.”

Shortly after the Hurriyet article—which also revealed that, in addition to the announcement that 500 Uyghurs had recently arrived in Turkey, there were an additional 356 Uyghurs detained in Thailand who also hoped for escape to Turkey—appeared, the PRC openly cracked down or, to be more accurate, cracked the whip on Turkey concerning the passport issue.

The PRC’s Global Times, a semi-official tabloid positioned as China’s answer to Fox News, revealed that back in November 2014 PRC authorities had exposed a scheme involving Turkish citizens inside the PRC selling their passports to Uyghurs who wanted to assume Turkish identities and escape China.  When the customers were identified, the passports were apparently mailed back to Turkey for modification, then mailed back to the PRC for delivery.  Presumably, the Turkish passport holders then obtained replacement passports from the Turkish consular office.

Police in Shanghai’s Public Security Bureau captured the suspects in November when nine Uyghurs attempted to sneak out of China with altered Turkish passports with the help of two other Chinese suspects.

The investigation showed that the suspects, including a Uyghur living in Turkey and a Turkish suspect, charged 60,000 yuan ($9,680) per person for nine stowaways departing from Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

They also paid $2,000 each to nine Turkish people to get visas with fake invitation letters at the Chinese Embassy in Turkey. The passports were later sent overseas for forgery and alteration after the nine Turkish citizens entered China with the authentic ones.

This pricy caper may have simply been an entrepreneurial one-off.  But it took place inside the PRC, which gave Beijing the opportunity to act as the injured party.

So Global Times was unleashed.  Public shaming of this sort is not unknown in PRC foreign relations.  When the Musharraf regime was not sufficiently cooperative in tracking down militants hostile to the PRC in Pakistan’s west, PRC state media took the opportunity of Musharraf’s state visit to the PRC to publish its most-wanted list on the front page.

Although the passport scoop was given to Global Times instead of state media—perhaps to soften the blow a bit—PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hong Lei took the highly significant step of endorsing the GT report as “extremely accurate”.

The most fraught question is of possible Turkish official or semi-official connivance in facilitating the supply of fraudulent Turkish passports to Uyghur refugees.

It does not seem possible that the Turkish passports are “forged” i.e. concocted from the whole cloth by criminal gangs with scanners, printing presses, & what-not.  An interesting article on the booming fake-passport business reveals that with today’s security measures, the foundation of a fake passport is invariably a real passport:

More often than not, passports are stolen from tourists and then altered with the insertion of new pictures and additional pages.

“Criminals face difficulties producing fake passports due to the sophisticated anti-counterfeiting techniques, so they resort to buying real passports from gangs of thieves, which target foreign tourists in Thailand,” General Warawut Taweechaikarn, commander of the investigation division at the Immigration Bureau, told The Nation Tuesday.

Thailand, through which many Uyghur refugees are funneled by human traffickers is, indeed the world hub for passport forgery.  But the forgeries always involve modification of a genuine passport, stolen from a tourist or bought from a down-at-the-heels backpacker.  And, as the Global Times article indicates, the modifications to the passports took place in Turkey, not Thailand, for a reason that will become apparent.

That’s because Turkish passports have been biometric since 2010, an EU requirement.  Daily Hurriyet reported at the time:

The government subsequently decided to print the new passports in the Darphane, or state mint. The French digital-security company Gemalto will provide the chips for the passports.

Yes, that Gemalto, the “got hacked to pieces by the NSA and GCHQ” Gemalto.

Today’s Zaman tells us what a “biometric passport” involves:

A biometric passport, also known as an e-passport or ePassport, is a combined paper and electronic passport that uses biometrics to authenticate the identity of travelers. It uses contactless smart card technology, including a microprocessor chip (computer chip) and antenna (for both power to the chip and communication) embedded in the front or back cover, or center page, of the passport.

The chip inside the passport contains information about the holder’s face – such as the distances between eyes, nose, mouth and ears. These details are taken from the passport photograph that you supply. They can then be used to identify the passport-holder. The chip also holds the information that is printed on the personal details page of your passport.

According to the EU, “a few” non-biometric Turkish passports still exist in the wild but will be completely phased out on November 15, 2015.   The next iteration of the biometric passport will, in addition to facial features, include a digital record of the holder’s fingerprints.

So it looks like the Turkish passports are not only being forged using legit Turkish passports as a foundation; I consider it unlikely that forgeries of the more recent biometric passports are knocked out without some official or unofficial help from Turkish intelligence agencies.

In the case of the 155 Uyghurs in Malaysia, it is worth pondering that they were not apprehended because their passports were forged.  They were rounded up on a tip, perhaps from an aggrieved neighbor (the 155 people were crammed into two apartment units in Kuala Lumpur) and the best the Malaysian authorities could say when confronted with the spectacle of 155 Uyghurs brandishing Turkish passports was that they “suspected” the passports were fake.

So I wonder when, if ever, the forged nature of these passports is actually detected: at the Malaysian border?  At immigration in Turkey, only because they show up on a watch list provided by Turkish intelligence, which maybe prepared the faked passports in the first place?

As to motivation for possible Turkish involvement in the Uyghur refugee/passport escapade, I can only speculate.

Beyond Erdogan’s desire to position Turkey as motherland of the Turkic-speaking race (the Turkic tribes that fled before the warriors of the Mongolian steppes and in their turn ravaged Europe up to the gates of Vienna before settling in Istanbul actually originated near if not in northern Xinjiang), it is possible that Turkey hopes to establish itself as an important and necessary interlocutor with the PRC on the issue of the Uyghurs and thereby reduce the asymmetry in its relations with the economically overbearing Asian superpower, furthermore a superpower which is a fearsome competitor to Turkey in the battle for influence in Central Asia’s stans.

In 2009, Erdogan characterized the PRC presence in Xinjiang as “a kind of genocide” and threatened to issue a visa to Rebiya Kadeer, head of the World Uygur Congress émigré group.

Given Turkey’s rather reckless recent history in using militants to increase its regional leverage, it is not unreasonable to speculate that Erdogan thought that he could gain China’s attention if not its gratitude by fostering a significant Uyghur diaspora inside Turkey and using control over this presence and its inclination to support activism and resistance inside Xinjiang as an asset in his dealings with the PRC.

This tendency may have climaxed in November 2014, when Turkey’s Foreign Minister publicly called for the Uyghurs detained in Thailand to be sent to Turkey.

However, I suspect that the curtain is coming down on Erdogan’s excellent Uyghur adventure.

For the PRC government, which sees a possible replay of Chechnya in Xinjiang (and therefore ignores the human rights & religious freedom whinging from the West concerning the harshness of its rule), denying Uyghurs a foreign refuge is the highest priority.  If and when the PRC’s vaunted “noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations” policy goes by the wayside, it will probably involve some kind of Uyghur-related cross-border military operation against some militant haven that Afghanistan or Pakistan are unwilling or unable to deal with.

Job one for the PRC is to pressure its neighbors to crack down both on potential havens and the Uyghurs who might occupy them.

In 2009, Cambodia repatriated 20 Uyghurs and, in an apparent quid pro quo, received a massive aid deal from the PRC.

And Afghanistan, seeking the PRC’s good offices in negotiating the future role of the Taliban and PRC’s support for reconstruction, publicly revealed last week that it had arrested and repatriated 15 Uyghurs to the PRC.

As for Turkey, as noted above the PRC made representations in the strongest public terms in January 2015 that it will not tolerate Turkey serving as a haven for Uyghur refugees, especially if it involves active collusion and jiggery-pokery in the matter of forged Turkish passports.

Turkey publicly knuckled under on the issue, sending its National Police Chief Mehmet Celalettin Lekesiz to Beijing in early February 2015.  This occasioned the usual crass vaunting by Global Times, and also the reported call by his host, Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun, that both sides enhance public cooperation on “combating organized human smuggling”.

‘Nuff said.

As to the hundreds of Uyghurs detained in Thailand and offered the possibility of succor by Turkey, they appear to be victims of a) the new Thai junta’s pro-PRC tilt and b) Turkey sidling away from its November 2014 declaration of concern.  RFA reported in late January 2015 that one campful of Uyghurs is on hunger strike to protest its miserable sojourn in detentive limbo and Turkish support doesn’t seem to be in the offing:

The detainees in the Hat Yai facility are among the roughly 300 Uyghur refugees who fled to Thailand 10 months ago, some of whom maintain they are Turkish citizens in an apparent effort to win support from the government of Turkey.

Thai authorities and international media, however, say they are Uyghur Muslims from Xinjiang where the minority group complains of ethnic discrimination by Chinese authorities.

The detainee said a prison officer at Hat Yai told them: “If all of you really are Turkish citizens and the Turkish government sends us an official letter to testify you are Turkish citizens, we will release you and let you all go to Turkey as soon as possible.”

In contrast to its previous expressions of enthusiasm, Turkey now seems uninterested in handling this hot potato.

Turkey also seems to be taking a leaf from the Indian playbook and keeping its public-sector support for the Uyghur refugees to a minimum of residency permits and free housing (as India keeps an arms-length relationship with the Tibetan exile community centered on Dharmasala).  Many of the Uyghur refugees interviewed by the international media expressed a general dissatisfaction with the niggardly nature of Turkish government support, and it looks like private parties, the Uyghur diaspora, NGOs, and the occasional jihadist recruiter will have to fill in the gaps.

It will be interesting to see if hundreds of Uyghur refugees continue to turn up in Turkey thanks to forged Turkish passports.  I tend to doubt it.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and covers Asia for CounterPunch.

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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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