Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Chinese Asylum Seekers in Bangkok, Part I

 

The United Nations building in Bangkok, Thailand. Image credit: dsin_travel / CC BY 2.0 

China has consistently ranked among the top 20 refugee producing countries every year since 2003, according to statistics published by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The latest statistics published in June 2021 indicated that China was 18th on the UNHCR’s list at the end of 2020. The number of UNHCR-registered refugees originally from China reached 175,585. Additionally, there were 107,864 Chinese asylum seekers around the globe with pending claims. The number of asylum seekers increased nine-fold from just 11,375 in 2011, the year before paramount leader Xi Jinping assumed power.  

Table 1. UNHCR's Forced Displacement Statistics (Country of Origin: China)

Source: UNHCR, Refugee Data Finder, 2003-2020 

Many UNHCR-recognized refugees from China consider the West a destination of choice for resettlement. After taking the first step in the long journey to asylum, many refugees from China sojourn in Thailand where they await refugee status determination. It is an administrative process by which the Bangkok-based regional office of UNHCR for Southeast Asia determines whether a person seeking protection qualifies as a refugee under international law. Bangkok is home to an estimated 8,000 urban refugees—hailing from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.  

Dui Hua is not aware of any official statistics about Chinese asylum seekers in Thailand. However, Bei Ling, founder of “Home of Refugees” in Thailand in 2015, estimated that more than 300 Chinese asylum seekers were in the country as of October 2018.  

This is the first entry in a two-part series examining issues facing Chinese asylum seekers in Thailand. This entry explores who they are and why they have fled China. The second entry will look at how and why Thailand falls short of being a safe haven. Prospective refugees with or without valid passports risk criminal detention for overstaying in Thailand. Their predicaments also include indefinite wait times for third country resettlement. The fact that Thailand fails to abide by the principle of non-refoulement also places a heightened risk of repatriation for those seeking protection from persecution at home. 

Why Thailand?

Thailand started to become a popular place of transit for Chinese refugees about two decades ago. Prior to that, those with a well-founded fear of persecution decamped to colonial Hong Kong to flee political persecution thanks to the lax border controls at the time. Since China resumed sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997, Hong Kong has ceased to be a popular destination for asylum protection.  

For decades, Hong Kong has been a magnet for refugees. It is troubling to see a spiked increase in asylum seekers from Hong Kong since civil unrest triggered first by the now-rescinded extradition bill, and then by the sweeping arrests made under the National Security Law. The law criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. At the end of 2020, there were 487 registered asylum seekers from Hong Kong, up from 22 in 2018 before mass protests erupted in June 2019. 

While a portion of those who fled China could be considered “economic migrants” in search of sustenance and a livelihood, China’s much-lauded economic success has fallen short of stopping people from fleeing abroad. Critics of one-party rule, adherents of banned religious groups, civil rights activists, petitioners, and ethnic minority groups are continuing to seek asylum protection abroad via Thailand.  

Chinese nationals find entry to Thailand easier than other neighboring countries or regions including South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, mainly because they benefit from the 15-day visas on arrival available to them (Thailand has suspended this arrangement due to the outbreak of coronavirus). Entry to elsewhere requires obtaining a pre-arranged visa. 

The Thailand-Laos overland crossing checkpoint at Sop Ruak. Image credit: Slleong / CC0 via Wikimedia Commons 

Because of geographical proximity, those without proper legal documents can resort to traveling illicitly overland from Yunnan with the help of smugglers. Chiang Mai, for instance, is reachable by land transport from Yunnan’s border in nine hours. From Chiang Mai, it is another half-day journey to Bangkok, where asylum seekers file their refugee claims at the UNHCR office. 

Why Flee?

Political Prisoners

Geng He (耿和), wife of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, is arguably the most notable example of a family member of a Chinese political prisoner fleeing political persecution via Thailand. She left for Bangkok with her children in January 2009 while her husband was serving his suspended sentence for inciting subversion. Gao’s entire family faced reprisal because Gao took on controversial cases and publicly called for an end to the persecution of Falun Gong. While in China, Gao’s children were prevented from attending school. Geng and her children stayed in Bangkok for two months before resettling in the United States. However, it must be noted that such speedy granting of asylum by the United States was only expedited by international attention. As will be discussed in Part II, the wait time for third country resettlement is often indefinite. Today, Gao remains under house arrest even after his sentence expired in August 2014. 

Another asylum application involved Hua Yong (华涌), who arrived in Canada in April 2021. Hua is a well-known painter from Beijing who posted videos documenting forced evictions and demolitions in poor neighborhoods. He was placed under residential surveillance at a designated location for three months after meeting with the father of Dong Yaoqiong, a girl who was admitted to a psychiatric facility after she live-streamed a video of herself accusing the Chinese Communist Party of “thought control.” Hua escaped to Thailand in September 2019. 

Dui Hua previously assisted former political prisoner Li Huangming (李焕明) with verifying his claim for political asylum. Before being granted political asylum in Finland in May 2013, Li fled to Bangkok after he completed his nine years’ sentence for inciting subversion in September 2010. The conviction stemmed from him distributing or planning to distribute tens of thousands of “reactionary” flyers in Shenzhen. While awaiting refugee resettlement, Li wrote stories about other Chinese asylum seekers in Bangkok for Boxun and other NGOs. In an article published by Human Rights in China in November 2012, Li wrote that Bangkok’s UNHCR office had a special team of interpreters and officials to handle the surge of applications from Chinese dissidents.  

Li wrote about changing demographics of Chinese asylum seekers. A significant number of applications were submitted by petitioners contrary to the popular belief that most Chinese refugees are supporters of China’s democracy movement, violators of the one-child policy, and adherents of banned religious groups such as Falun Gong and house churches. 

Petitioners

Li’s observation is in line with what has been reported in unofficial news sources in recent years. Petitioners fled to Bangkok because they face reprisal in China after lodging futile complaints about land expropriation or forced demolition in their home cities.  

Petitioner Zhang Shufeng protests at UNHCR’s Bangkok office while holding a bilingual slogan that says “Request UNHCR help.” Image credit: Mirror Media 

Zhang Shufeng (张淑凤), a native of Beijing, fled to Bangkok in 2014 and obtained refugee status three years later. Taiwan-based Mirror Media reported that Zhang’s family was subjected to house arrest, beatings, and constant surveillance by government-hired thugs in China. Surveillance intensified during the “Two Sessions” (the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference) and other political events. In Bangkok, Zhang protested at the UNHCR office while holding a bilingual slogan saying “Request UNHCR help,” in the hope that the UNHCR would expedite her resettlement process.  

In January 2017, unofficial news media reported that Beijing evictee Wang Ling (王玲) joined her son who had arrived in Bangkok in December 2016 to maximize the chance of them both getting through Chinese immigration checks. Wang claimed that she had received death threats from police after pursuing complaints about the forced demolition of her home. In 2008, she was sentenced to 15 months of re-education through labor and had been detained a total of 11 times. The news of abnormal deaths in police custody made Wang fear for her life.

Religious Persecution

Falun Gong practitioners still make up a large portion of asylum seekers in Bangkok. Many of them have fled persecution after the suppression of the spiritual sect began in 1999. One widely publicized case concerns Song Zhiyu (宋志宇), who escaped to Thailand in early 2014 via Myanmar after completing his three-and-a-half-year sentence for “organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” In a Reuters interview in 2016, Song recounted how he “was spirited across a river into Thailand and hidden in the luggage hold of a Bangkok-bound bus.” Song claimed that Thailand had about 160 Falun Gong refugees and asylum seekers. The Thai authorities have taken an interest in them owing to the close bond between the military junta and Chinese government since 2014. More than 29 practitioners had been arrested on immigration charges under the military junta, said Song. 

Members of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu have also made their escapes via Thailand and joined the ranks of asylum seekers before pastor Wang Yi (王怡) was sentenced to nine years in prison for subversion and illegal business activity in December 2019. The crackdown on this prominent house church prompted Liao Qiang (廖强) to travel to Thailand with five of his family members in July 2019. They stayed in Thailand only for three days before transiting to Taiwan. However, their stay in Taiwan was only temporary because Taiwan does not have a refugee law. Liao and his family left for the United States on June 29, 2021 after receiving political asylum there. 

Civil Activism

New groups of asylum seekers have emerged following Xi Jinping’s sweeping crackdown on civil society since he took power in 2012. Some were participants of the “Southern Street Movement,” a series of small-scale street banner protests that occurred in southern cities such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen from 2012-2013. The movement called for democratic reform and government officials to disclose assets.  

Among the “Southern Street Movement” asylum seekers were Wu Yuhua (吴玉华) and her husband Yang Chong (杨崇). They fled China in early 2015 after being targeted by police for supporting the protests in Guangzhou. Two years later, the couple was granted refugee status in Bangkok.  

Yang Chong holding up a banner calling for human rights and elections in 2015. Image credit: Bnn.co

Supporters of the New Citizens’ Movement have also sought political asylum. The movement was promoted by prominent legal scholar and civil rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who was formally arrested for subversion in January 2021 after calling on Xi Jinping to step down. Sharing similar aspirations with Xu, Yan Bojun (颜伯钧) arrived in Bangkok in early 2015 after several futile attempts to leave China. In 2016, Yan published a book in Japan recounting the suppression he faced after helping Xu provide legal assistance to victims of social injustice. He had been placed under criminal detention several times in China; the longest one lasted 30 days. 

Liu Xinglian (刘兴联), another UNHCR-recognized refugee, was arrested in Hubei for inciting subversion in June 2015 due to his involvement in Qin Yongmin’s “China Human Rights Watch.” The group promoted the idea of a peaceful transformation to a democracy and circulated Qin’s articles about the inevitable demise of China’s autocratic rule. After Liu was released on bail in April 2016, he managed to escape to Bangkok in 2017.  

Uyghurs & Kazakhs

Pakistan, which borders Xinjiang, was once a popular escape route for Uyghurs seeking to escape Chinese state repression, but its growing economic reliance on China has made Uyghurs fear for their future. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said as recently as July 2021 that, “What they [China] say about the programs in Xinjiang, we accept it.”  In the mid-2010s, a large group of Uyghurs made a long detour south to Bangkok before human rights abuses associated with the “re-education camps” made international headlines. However, Uyghurs are typically not interested in registering in Thailand as asylum seekers, according to a UNHCR statement in 2015. They were only looking for ways to get to Turkey, a destination of choice with an estimated 50,000 Uyghur residents.  

Thai authorities have confirmed a staggering number of Uyghur escapees in Thailand. In 2014, a group of 424 Uyghurs were detained in Thailand. In July 2015, over 170 Uyghurs were released to start new lives in Turkey, but a week later the Thai government repatriated 109 refugees to China. In July 2017, Thai immigration police said about 60 Uyghurs remained in detention centers across the country. As recently as 2020, their number was down to about 50. They were remnants of the Uyghurs who fled to Thailand in 2014. 

Evidence also suggests that ethnic Kazakhs have fled Xinjiang’s massive surveillance and detention campaign. A recent case involved Qalymbek Shahman, who Uzbek authorities sent back to Thailand after being denied entry to Kazakhstan in January 2019. He was subjected to intense racial profiling in China, making it impossible for him to make a living. “I would have my ID checked every 50 to 100 meters when I was in Xinjiang…Whether it was getting on a plane, on a train or other public transportation, they would spend half an hour checking me out every time.” His clients became concerned as to why he was routinely monitored and consequently stopped doing businesses with him. 

Chinese asylum seekers in Thailand face a number of problems beyond finding safe haven, including the lack of legal recognition. The second instalment will explore why and how Thailand falls short in protecting asylum seekers, and the challenges asylum seekers encounter once in Thailand. 

Read Part II here.