Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Chinese Asylum Seekers in Bangkok, Part II

At the Thailand-Laos crossing checkpoint at Sop Ruak, people queue to travel between Thailand and the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos. Image credit: Slleong / CCO via Wikimedia Commons

This is the second installment in a two-part series. Read Part I here.

Thailand does not recognize the status of refugees because it has not acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. Refugees who overstay their visas or enter Thailand without proper documents are regarded as illegal immigrants. They have no legal right to work or adequate access to health care; nor can their children attend local schools. They are dependent on charitable groups, religious organizations, other refugees in their community, or they simply subsist on meagre savings. Because of budget cuts and a global tightening of national immigration policies, the UNHCR has reportedly axed financial aid for refugees. 

Consequently, many Chinese asylum seekers and refugees enter Bangkok’s labor black market to make a living. Once arrested, they are typically held in immigration detention centers, many of which are “severely overcrowded, provide inadequate food, have poor ventilation and lack medical service and other basic necessities,” according to Human Rights Watch.  

In January 2015, Uyghur refugees also complained to a visiting Istanbul-based journalist about health problems in the detention facilities in Thailand. Prior to this incident, three Uyghurs died despite efforts of charitable groups to provide relief. In September 2018, a Chinese observer claimed that dozens of refugees and asylum seekers of different nationalities were crammed into an area of approximately 12 square meters of floor space. 

Because of the cramped and unhygienic conditions at the immigration centers, seven Uyghurs made a failed attempt at a jail break in February 2019. A Thai NGO, which has worked to assist these Uyghurs since their detention, is compiling evidence about the alleged reports of physical abuse by Thai police officers.   

The long wait time for resettlement is another major source of frustration among refugees. Zhang Shufeng (张淑凤), who obtained refugee status in 2017, said the UNHCR prioritizes applications of refugees from armed conflicts such as Syrians and Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims over Chinese applicants. In 2016, another asylum seeker Cai Yuliang (蔡欲亮) was finally accepted for resettlement in the United States after spending a total of 17 years in Thailand. Cai fled China in 1999, seven years after he completed his 20 years’ imprisonment for the now-defunct criminal offense of counterrevolution. 

No Safe Haven

Jiang Yefei holds a placard with a criminal charge at a Thai immigration detention center prior to repatriation in 2015. Image credit: Apple Daily (Taiwan) 

Since the coup of 2014, the Thai military regime has been tilting away from the United States toward China. Refugees or asylum seekers are believed to be facing imminent risk of repatriation at the behest of China — Thailand’s largest trade partner and major country of origin for tourists. 


Four months after over 100 Uyghurs were repatriated to China, Thailand deported Dong Guangping (董广平) and Jiang Yefei (姜野飞) in November 2015, allegedly for breaking immigration rules. A political cartoonist, Jiang left China in 2008 after he was detained and allegedly tortured over his work critical of the government’s handling of the Sichuan earthquake. Dong fled to Thailand in 2015, having served a three-year jail term for subversion from 2001-2004 and “disappeared” for eight months in secret detention in 2014.  

Following their repatriation, Jiang and Dong were sentenced in Chongqing to 78-month and 42-month imprisonment sentences, respectively, for subversion and illegal border crossing in July 2018. Thailand’s decision to repatriate the duo drew condemnation from the UN, United States, and others because both men had been awaiting resettlement in Canada after they obtained their refugee status. Dong completed his prison sentence on August 2, 2019, whereas Jiang still has one year to serve before release in August 2022. 

Cross-Border Law Enforcement

The disappearance of Chinese-born Swedish citizen Gui Minghai in Pattaya in October 2015 raised fear of cross-border operations of Chinese security forces. A similar case that did not garner much attention concerns former editor of the Southern Metropolitan Daily Li Xin (李新). In November 2015, Li fled to New Delhi after he was coerced by Chinese state security to work as an informant. He disappeared while riding a Laos-bound train in north Thailand in January 2016 in a bid to renew his Thai visa. A month later, Li reappeared in China claiming that he had returned to China “voluntarily” to assist with a police investigation. When asked about the case by The New York Times, the Thai Foreign Ministry responded that there was no “record as yet as to whether he has left the country.” Li’s wife and supporters speculated that Li had been abducted by Chinese security forces and clandestinely transported across the border.  

Turning a Blind Eye

Xing Jian (邢鉴) arrived in New Zealand as a refugee in January 2020, more than three years after the UNHCR recognized his refugee status in the summer of 2016. Xing criticized the Thai government for providing insufficient care and protection for UN-recognized refugees. While in Thailand, Chinese public security officers apprehended him alongside Bangkok police because he overstayed his visa on November 25.  

Before fleeing China, Xing volunteered for prominent dissident Huang Qi (黄琦) and was accused of “rumour-mongering” for exposing corruption in his home county in Jiangsu. His father Xing Wangli (邢望力), who remains in China, was sentenced to two years and three months’ imprisonment in October 2018 for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Xing Wangli was re-arrested in June 2021 for defamation after visiting prominent rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong

Wu Yuhua and Yang Chong (see part 1) were originally scheduled to depart for Canada from Bangkok on June 25, 2019. However, they were barred from leaving Thailand. Yang may be required to complete his one-year suspended sentence there for overstaying, according to a Chinese activist familiar with Thai laws. However, another Radio Free Asia report cited the Chinese embassy as saying that the Thai authorities “do not rule out the possibility of repatriating the duo to China.” 

Fleeing Again

Risky Voyage

In view of a potentially indefinite waiting period for resettlement, the threat of repatriation, and abduction by Chinese security forces overseas, some asylum seekers and refugees are determined to flee once more. Prior to the scheduled interview with the UNHCR in 2017, Falun Gong practitioner Dong Junming (董俊明) undertook a risky voyage to New Zealand, some 6,000 miles away from Pattaya, on February 29, 2016. Dong was joined by six like-minded asylum seekers and two children.  

In early March, a few days into their voyage, the yacht capsized off the Thai coast. In an interview with overseas media, Dong said that “[i]t’s highly risky out there on the ocean, but we are so fearful here in Thailand that I thought I should take the risk.” All travellers who boarded the yacht, including China Democracy Party member Li Xiaolong (黎小龙), were returned to Thailand after the failed escape. Some were placed in immigration detention centers while at least one of them stood trial for illegal entry into Thailand in January 2017. 

To Taiwan

In a bid to evade the extending reach of China in Thailand, some dissidents have chosen to flee once more to Taiwan. Huang Yan (黄燕)  fled to Thailand in 2016 after years of harassment, repeated incarceration, and alleged torture for speaking out in support of Gao Zhisheng. In May 2018, she flew to Jakarta, then to Taiwan, where she was granted temporary leave to remain until the United States granted her political asylum in January 2019. 

Following in Huang’s footsteps, China Democracy Party members Yan Bojun (颜伯钧) and Liu Xinglian (刘兴联) left Bangkok four months after Huang’s arrival in Taiwan. They were granted entry in February 2019 on the basis of “professional exchanges” after 125 days at Taipei Taoyuan airport. At the time of writing, both men have been granted asylum protection in Canada. 

On September 29, 2016, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Deputy Minister Chiu Chui-cheng expresses concerns over the situation in Hong Kong but says Taiwan will not intervene. Image credit: Voice of America via Wikimedia Commons 

It would be a mistake to assume that Taiwan welcomes individuals fleeing violence and persecution in China. While the island has promised assistance to Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protesters, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) maintained that Taiwan policy toward mainland asylum seekers remained unchanged. Should Taiwan openly admit mainland asylum seekers and refugees, it will likely trigger a flood of applications and further antagonize China, putting hundreds of thousands of China-based Taiwanese residents, workers, and investors at risk of arbitrary detention. Additionally, Taiwan fears what it calls “infiltration” from mainland agents. There have been recent arrivals of mainland Chinese who managed to cross the Taiwan Straits despite it being one of the world’s most heavily policed waterways. 

Taiwan is not a member of the UN and does not have legislation to protect refugees. The island only vows to deal with applications from mainland Chinese on a case-by-case basis, according to the MAC.  


It must be noted that around the globe, not all Chinese asylum applicants are found to have a legitimate fear for persecution. In Australia, for instance, the number of Chinese nationals applying for refugee asylum rose by 311 percent in just one year from 2017. Despite this surge, the Australian Department of Home Affairs only recognized 10 percent of such claims as being genuine. Most claims found to be bogus have been used by applicants to overstay their visas. The United States has also cracked down on “asylum mills,” which have helped thousands of Chinese immigrants to fraudulently win asylum status. Over 13,500 immigrants, mostly Chinese, who were granted asylum status are reportedly facing possible deportation.

A poster from the Australian government’s 2013 "No Way" campaign aimed at dissuading attempts by non-citizens to enter Australia. Image credit: Australian Customs and Border Protection Service / CC BY-SA 3.0  

However, many of those in Bangkok have been determined by the UNHCR to have a well-founded fear for persecution, a fear not imaginary but very much real, as being detained, arrested, and sentenced should they be returned to China. The fact that Thailand is not a signatory state of the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol does not absolve the country from its duty to protect refugees inside its borders. The UNHCR has also called on all states, including non-signatory states, to observe non-refoulement, an international principle that prevents all countries from expelling or returning an individual to a country where he or she is at genuine risk of persecution. 

Thai officials have reiterated their commitment to protecting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. They have also vowed to adopt anti-torture legislation to strengthen implementation of the principle of non-refoulement. However, insufficient protection for asylum seekers and refugees has left them stranded in Thailand, vulnerable to detention, arrest, and repatriation. Some of them have even been compelled to flee Thailand as well to evade arrests, deportation, and Chinese security forces overseas.