Winter fishing festival last week at Wulungu Lake in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
KAYSERI, Turkey — In hindsight, it was a soccer match that kindled Mehmet’s hatred of Chinese rule and set him on the path to exile.
In 2002, Mehmet was at university in Xinjiang, the northwest corner of China that is home to his Uighur ethnic group and the source of a wave of deadly violence in the past two years. He and some other Uighurs decided to support Turkey in the soccer World Cup, he said.
Most Uighurs are Muslim, speak a Turkic language and consider themselves part of a broad family of ethnic Turks.
But students from China’s ethnic Han majority were offended, Mehmet said. A fight erupted, leading university authorities to expel six of his friends.
So began a political awakening that led Mehmet to a prison labor camp in Xinjiang and ultimately to Turkey, following a perilous two-month voyage, mostly without a passport, through Central and Southeast Asia.
Mehmet is among hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs who have fled China in recent years, often heading for Turkey via Thailand and Malaysia, say Uighur migrants, activists and government officials from countries along that route.
Their flight is presenting China with many of the same fears that have plagued Western nations as they try to prevent their Muslim nationals from being radicalized or trained to fight overseas.
Fearing Uighur separatists are adopting the ideology and tactics of jihadists, China wants to shut down what state media call the “underground railway,” which Beijing says Uighurs are using to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq or to escape after committing crimes.