Authorities in Thailand are holding a group of Chinese asylum-seekers, including a small child, after they tried to reach Australia in a private yacht for fear of being sent back to China.
The detentions came after a yacht bought by Li Xiaolong and a group of fellow refugees—all of whom have been recognized as genuine by the United Nations—got into difficulties in southern Thailand on March 1 after taking on water from massive waves at sea, a member of the group told RFA on Monday.
Li, his wife Gu Qiao, their smallest child Li Yisheng and a refugee named Song Zhiyu are currently in police custody, fellow refugee Zhang Wei told RFA.
"Li Xiaolong's son, who isn't a year old, has been forcibly taken away by police and put in an orphanage," he said.
"I and Li Xiaolong boarded the boat with seven other people," Zhang said. "We were planning to leave Thailand, but when we had gone about 200 kilometers [124 miles] out to sea, we ran into huge waves caused by the [undersea] earthquake."
"The boat ran aground somewhere in [southern] Thailand," he said.
The family's relatives visited the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok on Monday in a last-ditch bid to halt the family's deportation to China.
"We went today ... to tell them what is going on and see if there was any action they could take to help us," Zhang said.
"But there is no new information they could give us, and they told us to go back on Thursday," he said.
‘Disastrous for him’
Chinese refugees in Thailand say the ruling Chinese Communist Party launched a drive late last year to repatriate all Chinese nationals in Thailand, many of whom seek asylum and resettlement in other countries after being jailed or otherwise targeted by the authorities as prisoners of conscience.
Li's brother said he had tried to make inquiries with the Thai police, but it appears that the process is being kept under wraps.
"I asked the Thai police, via some friends, but they said they didn't know anything because it was all being kept secret; they are deliberately not telling anyone," he said.
"If my brother really does get repatriated, it will be disastrous for him,” he said. “We are all very scared; we are terrified for them."
In an interview before his detention, Li told RFA that most Chinese activists are now effectively on the run, constantly on the move in a bid to evade arrest and deportation on illegal immigration charges.
In November, Chinese asylum-seekers Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping, who had fled persecution in their home country, were handed back to the Chinese authorities in a move that drew strong criticism from the United Nations.
They are now under criminal detention in China for "organizing illegal border crossings and illegally crossing the border."
Jiang's wife Chu Ling, Dong's wife Gu Shuhua and daughter Dong Xuerui were later flown to Canada from Bangkok for resettlement as political refugees. They fear Jiang and Dong are now at risk of torture and other violations of their rights.
Three other Chinese nationals were repatriated at the same time, but their identities remain unconfirmed.
And in December, Chinese asylum-seeker Wang Junli, who had been in the country for more than a year, and who also held a UNHCR letter of protection, was arrested by Thai police and repatriated.
‘Illegal immigration’ charges
Zhang, who remains free because he holds a valid Thai visa, said the Li family and Song Zhiyu are being held on similar charges of "illegal immigration."
Chinese national Xing Jian, currently in the process of applying for asylum in Bangkok, said Li had continued his political activism while in Thailand, setting up the Southeast Asia branch of the banned opposition China Democracy Party (CDP).
Dozens of CDP members have been handed lengthy jail terms for subversion since the party was banned in 1998.
"He's in an immigration detention center on the Thai coast right now," Xing said of Li. "There is a very strong likelihood that he'll be repatriated because he set up the Southeast Asia division of the CDP."
Li, a founding member of the CDP from the southwestern province of Guangxi, escaped China with his family in 2014, before being classified a genuine refugee by UNHCR.
He was also vocal in the campaign to prevent the repatriation of Dong Guangping and Jiang Yefei.
Uyghur refugees beaten
In a related development, Thai officials on Monday denied beating six Uyghurs refugees from northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, who have been detained in capital Bangkok for at least two years after they were found in a human smuggling camp in southern Thailand.
Thai police reportedly beat the six detainees inside one facility after they had an argument with officials there who watched an erotic film in their presence as well as the presence of other detainees of different nationalities on Feb. 29, according to a statement issued Saturday by the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a Munich, Germany-based organization of exiled Uyghur groups.
“The claimed content on the [WUC’s] website was false,” immigration police commander Lt. Gen. Natthorn Phrosunthorn told RFA. “The Uyghur [detainees] didn’t even cause a problem for police at all.”
One of the Uyghurs sustained serious head injuries, while a second suffered from less severe head injuries, and the remainder was beaten on their torsos, WUC said.
The group also said Thai authorities did not allow the men access to medical treatment.
“If there is no evidence, they [WUC] cannot make a blank accusation,” said Major General Werachon Sukhontapatipak, a spokesman for the Thai government, said. “In this case, we can confirm that it was not true because in the past, besides arresting them [the Uyghurs] for illegal entry, we focused on providing them with humanitarian assistance.”
The six Uyghurs are part of a larger group that has been held in various facilities around Bangkok for more than two years for illegally entering the country while fleeing persecution in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region.
Thai authorities released more than 170 Uyghurs last year, allowing them to resettle in Turkey, but forcibly returned about 100 to China. The rest remain in limbo in indefinite detention in Thailand.
“We realize the sensitivity [about how to treat the Uyghurs], and therefore we have provided them with humanitarian aid,” Werachon Sukhontapatipak said. “We know they were under pressure to have escaped [China] because of their livelihoods and safety, but some of them voluntarily got involved in human trafficking.”
'Under indefinite detention'
Chalida Tajaroensuk, executive director of the People’s Empowerment Foundation, a Bangkok-based nongovernmental organization that has provided legal assistance to Uyghur refugees, said the leftover Uyghurs have been deemed illegal migrants and have been awaiting repatriation to China or a third country.
“They are under indefinite detention, literally, but it’s better than being sent back to the country of origin,” she told RFA.
The WUC has called for the release of the remaining Uyghurs being held in Thai detention centers.
“It is now the obligation of the Thai government to ensure that the remaining group of Uyghur refugees is freed from detention in a timely manner and that they are provided adequate care,” the WUC’s statement said.
China’s Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
Uyghur exiles and rights groups, however, have criticized Chinese authorities’ heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, and forcing many to flee overseas, often through Southeast Asia.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie and Roseanne Gerin.