Police in Thailand have detained two Chinese dissidents who have been registered as U.N. refugees in what is believed to be as part of sweep on asylum seekers, mostly hill tribe ethnic minorities in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Human rights groups have expressed alarm at the detentions.
Married Chinese couple Yang Chong and Wu Yuhua, who is also known by her nickname Ai Wu, were detained by police in Bangkok on Wednesday, and locked up in an immigration detention center while awaiting resettlement in a third country.
According to an audio message sent out by Wu following their arrest, the Thai police are in contact with the Chinese Embassy in Thailand.
Wu, who fled China to escape political repercussions after she started a support group for disappeared rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, said in the recording that she fears the pair will soon be forcibly repatriated to China.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Thai authorities had also arrested 181 ethnic minority refugees and asylum seekers, most with UN refugee status and mostly from the Montagnard population in Vietnam and Cambodia. They were rounded up Tuesday on the outskirts of Bangkok.
“Thailand’s frequent claims about improving refugee rights ring hollow when officials detain dozens of families who are protected under the mandate of the UN refugee agency,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW. “These Montagnards face harsh persecution if they are returned to Cambodia and Vietnam, which Thailand should not do under any circumstances.”
The district chief of Bang Yai district in Nonthaburi province, north of Bangkok, led a team of Ministry of Interior security officers, police, immigration police, and army soldiers to arrest the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees and asylum seekers—including over 50 children—at their rented homes in Nonthaburi province, HRW said.
Sun Nattadej Kungsukul, the chief of Bang Yai district, told reporters that a joint security team detained the 172 migrants following a tip-off from local residents.
“We suspected they are connected with human trafficking rings ... Some of them work illegally,” Sun said.
He however did not mention about the status of the two Chinese dissidents.
“The authorities do not recognize their [U.N. refugee] status and have not released them,” said Puttanee Kangkun, a staffer with Fortify Rights group, which assisted the migrants at the district office Thursday.
She, too, was unable to provide information about the two Chinese dissidents.
Many Montagnards have fled Vietnam to Cambodia and Thailand in recent years to escape religious and political persecution. Cambodia’s ethnic Jarai population, many of whom are Christian, have faced land confiscation and intensifying government pressure after Vietnamese Jarai fled into Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province.
Wu and Yang were detained along with He Weiyi outside the New Zealand Embassy in Bangkok, where they had intended to deliver a petition along with Duan Jinggang and other Chinese exiles.
Eyewitnesses said He Weiyi, a missionary with legal immigration status in Thailand, was released soon after, but Wu and Yang couldn't produce any legal documents proving their right to be in Thailand, and were taken to an immigration detention center.
According to Thailand-based refugee Yu Yanhua, Wu, Yang and He had hoped to petition the New Zealand authorities for resettlement.
"We wrote and signed a petition calling on embassies from [different] countries to ... accept us as refugees as soon as possible, to ensure our safety and security," Yu told RFA on Thursday.
"He Weiyi has been released, but Yang Chong and Ai Wu haven't," she said.
Yu, the original recipient of Wu's recorded message, said she had asked people to come out in support of the couple, should there be "no further news."
"A blue-uniformed police officer has already been on the phone with the Chinese Embassy, asking them to come and take us away," Wu said in her message.
Yang and Wu were initially targeted by Chinese police after taking part in the press freedom protests in the southern city of Guangzhou in January 2013.
They fled the country in February 2015, and made their way to Thailand.
Since then, they have been eking an existence without papers in the country's Pattaya region.
They were approved as political refugees by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Bangkok in 2017, but had yet to be accepted for resettlement in a third country amid a global tightening of national immigration policies.
Last month, authorities in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing jailed two rights activists sent home from Thailand as they were awaiting resettlement as political refugees, prompting an international outcry.
Dong Guangping and Jiang Yefei fled with their families to Thailand in 2015, and were granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees office in Bangkok.
But as they awaited resettlement in a third country, they were handed over to China by the Thai police, in a move that drew strong criticism from the U.N.
Dong and Jiang were both found guilty of "incitement to subvert state power" and "illegally crossing a national border" by a court in Chongqing.
Jiang received a six-and-a-half-year jail term, while Dong was sentenced to three-and-a-half years, their relatives said, citing phone calls with police and online reports.
Dong had been a prominent rights activist before his initial detention in May 2014, after he participated in memorials for late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, late reformist premier Hu Yaobang, and the People's Liberation Army
(PLA) massacre of civilians that put an end to weeks of student protest on Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
After his release on bail, pending trial, Dong fled China in September 2015, only to be sent back to China with Jiang the following November.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and BenarNews, a RFA-affiliated online. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.