Chinese political refugees in Thailand, many of whom smuggled themselves across Southeast Asia to escape persecution by the authorities back home, say the country is no longer a safe haven for dissidents, as the Thai authorities seem increasingly willing to hand them back over to Beijing.
Several Chinese asylum-seekers—some of whom were recognized by the United Nations as genuine refugees—have been deported for immigration violations, throwing the expatriate dissident community into a state of constant fear, some told RFA in recent interviews.
"The Thai government began an operation to round up any foreign nationals who have overstayed their visas," Wu Yuhua, a rights activist who escaped to Thailand more than a year ago, told RFA.
"This means that the Chinese refugees are now living in constant fear, every day," she said. "We fear that one day, it'll be us who gets taken in."
Thailand is no longer the safe haven it once was for Chinese dissidents fleeing persecution, according to Wu and many others like her.
"It's not so much being locked up in immigration detention. That's not so bad, but if we get repatriated, we will definitely wind up in jail," Wu said.
Some rights activists never even make it as far as Thailand, she said, citing the case of Liu Jiaqing, who was arrested by police in Myanmar.
"I heard recently he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment," Wu said.
Those who do get to Thailand face the constant threat of detention, as well as official retaliation against loved ones back in China, she said.
Chinese activists in Thailand now face being followed and watched on a regular basis by personnel hired by the Chinese government, refugees say.
"The following, the surveillance, the monitoring: all of this makes it much more risky," Yu Yanhua, who fled persecution in his hometown of Xuzhou, in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, told RFA.
"I don't dare go back to where I am living; I'm too frightened," Yu said. "There is nowhere safe to hide."
Fellow asylum-seeker and former Henan rights activist Xing Jian said Thailand now seems to be full of Chinese agents.
"People get suspicious if you ask after them, because China has sent a huge number of agents to Thailand, planting them among the refugees and messing with their relationships," he said.
"The refugees here have very few dealings with one another now, even at the UNHCR," Xing said. "Even if we see them there, we won't go over and greet them."
Zhang Wei, from the southwestern Chinese province of Guangxi, said he was followed by suspected Chinese agents when he helped organize an event commemorating the 1989 Tiananan massacre.
"There were three suspicious-looking people there," he said. "They looked exactly like Chinese state security police, to judge from the way they were dressed."
"Somebody even went to the home of [Thailand-based refugee] Li Xiaolong and tried to visit him," he said.
Thailand-based dissident Liu Xuehong said the Chinese agents are busy eroding any support for refugees, either among each other or from supporters in Thailand.
"Their aim is to obstruct us, and to stop us from speaking out," Liu said. "Even the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is concerned about our safety."
Two handed back
Last November, Chinese asylum seekers Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping, who had fled persecution in their home country, were handed back to Chinese authorities in a move that drew strong criticism from the U.N. at the time.
They are now in pretrial detention in the southwestern city of Chongqing.
"We call on the U.N. to speed up our applications for resettlement as refugees so that we can live life like normal human beings," Liu said.
The fear of meeting a similar fate has left many Chinese asylum-seekers in serious financial difficulties, he said.
"Some people are reduced to eating waste or leftover food, or rely on friends to live," Liu said. "There isn't much support in place, and the UNHCR is overwhelmed by too many international refugees."
Earlier this month, Zhao Changfu, a prominent rights activist from the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, skipped bail for subversion and fled through mountains and jungle, using Google Maps as a guide.
Liu said that he and Zhao were followed by an unidentified person when they went to the UNHCR to process Zhao's asylum application.
"It was just one person, following us ... The security situation hasn't been quite right since Zhao Changfu arrived," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.