Uighurs from China’s far western region of Xinjiang who have travelled to Turkey via Southeast Asia are being trained in Syria and Iraq with the aim of bringing jihad back to China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority that calls Xinjiang home, have left China in recent years.
Rights groups say such migrants are mostly fleeing ethnic violence in Xinjiang and Chinese controls on their religion and culture. Hundreds of people have died in unrest in Xinjiang in the last three years, blamed by Beijing on Islamist militants.
China’s Foreign Ministry said that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group Beijing says seeks an independent state in Xinjiang, finds followers from the region to seek training in the Middle East with the intent of returning to wage jihad.
“Terrorist extremists from within China’s borders are recruited to illegally exit the country. Through Southeast Asian countries they go to Turkey and from there head to the so-called holy wars in Syria and Iraq, receive terrorist training and bide their time to return,” the ministry said in a statement sent to Reuters.
“This not only seriously damages China’s national security, but also is a threat to the security and stability of other relevant countries and regions,” it said.
The comments come as China steps ups efforts to bolster its claims that some of the 109 Uighurs deported from Thailand back to China last week posed a security threat, amid global concern about their wellbeing.
Their deportation sparked anger in Turkey, home to a large Uighur diaspora, and fed concern among rights groups and the United States that they could be mistreated upon their return.
In March, Xinjiang’s Communist Party chief Zhang Chunxian said that authorities had busted “extremists” that had returned from overseas wars, but authorities have offered little evidence to support their claims.
Many foreign experts, as well as rights groups and exiles, have questioned whether ETIM exists as the coherent group China claims it is.
“To strengthen so-called diplomatic victories, China meticulously fabricates lies to obtain its own political goals, and will force those repatriated to serve as propaganda tools,” Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled group the World Uyghur Congress, said in an emailed statement.