BANGKOK – Preferring to risk death than face deportation, Dong Junming boarded a boat off Thailand’s coast alongside eight fellow Chinese asylum-seekers in early March with the improbable plan of steering themselves to New Zealand.
He and his group are part of a growing number of refugees — especially Chinese nationals — who feel Thailand is no longer a safe haven under junta rule.
“I was desperate and frightened,” Dong, 52, told AFP of his attempted sea escape. “Even though I could have died, I had to try.”
Thailand has a complex and ambivalent attitude towards refugees. It still holds hundreds of thousands in border camps — most the legacy of regional Cold War conflict years — but it does not legally recognise refugees or offer asylum.
This places the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) in charge of handling a rising tide of applications.
Porous borders and a reputation for religious tolerance has long drawn those seeking sanctuary, with ad-hoc law enforcement allowing arrivals to settle into the shadows, or more often, move on to a third country.
Under the Thai junta, which seized power in 2014 vowing to clean the country of corruption and crime, there has been a crackdown on human smuggling gangs, which has won some praise and arrests.
But refugees and rights groups say raids against asylum-seekers are also up, with many left to languish in detention.
Worse, they might be deported back to where they fled from — an acute fear for the Chinese as Thailand’s generals move closer to Beijing.
Last summer Bangkok forcibly deported more than 100 Uighurs, a Muslim minority that rights groups say face persecution in western China.
In November two political dissidents already granted resettlement packages in Canada were also forcibly returned, while two Chinese men seeking safety on Thai soil vanished and reportedly emerged in Chinese custody earlier this year.
For Dong and his compatriots, followers of banned religious movement Falun Gong, the writing was on the wall. So they made their escape.
High waves and strong winds swiftly snuffed the ill-fated journey, damaging the boat and forcing the inexperienced crew back to Thai shores.
Those without proper entry permits were jailed and could now be taken to one of Thailand’s overcrowded immigration detention centres, where refugees face two options: buy a ticket home, or wait — often for years.
“Everyone has to be under Thai law, even if they are asylum-seekers,” said Thai immigration police commissioner Nathathorn Prousoontorn, whose department has adopted the slogan “Good guys in, bad guys out” to publicise a raft of stricter policies towards all foreigners.
He said police will free refugees if they receive a petition from the UNHCR, but advocacy groups dispute this and say securing a release has become nearly impossible under the junta.
Forgotten by the world
This is grim news for Lisa Zhang, another Chinese Falun Gong asylum-seeker whose husband was among the boat crew jailed after police discovered he didn’t have a proper visa.
He was carrying a UNHCR asylum-seeker document, according to his wife, but no Thai visa because he was smuggled into the country to avoid Chinese border guards.
“If he’s deported back to China, that would be worse than death,” she said, struggling to hold back tears.
Until his attempted sea journey, Dong, who says he was tortured in China, went by the book.
He legally entered Thailand and his first stop in Bangkok was the UNHCR.
But two years on his family has yet to be granted their first interview, the initial step in a lengthy process that could lead to resettlement.
So like other refugees he put his life on hold, unable to legally hold a job while his daughter misses out on years of school.
The UNHCR admits it doesn’t have the resources to do the job: only ten staff are handling 7,000 cases.
“We cannot help everyone but prioritise assistance to the most vulnerable,” said spokeswoman Vivian Tan.
Bangkok’s refugees currently hail from nearly 50 countries with Pakistanis — many of them Christian — making up the biggest block.
A web of political, bureaucratic and diplomatic entanglements determine which groups can be processed first, with many waiting for years while others are shipped out in a matter of months.
But the vast majority are unlikely to lead the normal lives they long for — less than one percent of the world’s refugees are successfully resettled.
After two years in Bangkok with little progress and no protection, Lisa’s hopes are fast dwindling.
“We are forgotten by the world,” she said. “I am hopeless.”