Bangkok, Thailand – Li Xiaolong knew the time had come to flee his homeland.
The Chinese government’s patience for political dissent was fast running out, and the ring of surveillance surrounding Li and his fellow democracy campaigners was tightening.
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Like many Chinese dissidents before him, Li decided to escape to Thailand, hopeful that the Southeast Asian nation would provide a safe haven for his young family.
But Li was wrong.
After hosting Chinese asylum seekers for years, Thailand is now sending increasing numbers back to China, as this 101 East documentary reveals.
Right now, I want to get my wife out of prison first before thinking about what to do next.
Rights advocates warn they face an uncertain future in China, including criminal charges and prison terms.
“There is no acceptable explanation or justification whatsoever for the Thai government to cooperate with Chinese authorities in breaking international human rights laws and human rights standards by returning asylum seekers and refugees to face danger in China,” says Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Dozens of asylum seekers from China have been sent back since July last year.
Last October, veteran dissident and political cartoonist Jiang Yefei was taken away by Thai police. Jiang had escaped from China to Bangkok six years earlier. He had been recognised as a refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Human rights activist and former political detainee Dong Guangping was arrested in the same raid. He had only recently arrived in Bangkok.
Despite efforts by activists and the UN to secure Jiang and Dong’s release, the two men were deported to China a few weeks after their arrest.
Their deportation came just months after Thailand sent more than 100 Uighur refugees back to China.
The deportations are instilling fear and paranoia among Chinese dissidents in Thailand, who had believed they were beyond Beijing’s reach.
Li Xiaolong, the democracy campaigner who came to Thailand with his wife and young family, has more reason to be fearful than many.
His wife, Gu Qiao, is being held in a Bangkok detention centre. Even though she has a refugee card issued by the United Nations, authorities detained her after discovering her visa had expired.
Li has been charged with human trafficking after an ill-fated attempt to sail to Australia with his family and five other asylum seekers.
His one-year-old son is with his mother behind bars, while Li, who is on bail, looks after their eight-year-old son in Bangkok.
Afraid that he could be imprisoned and that his entire family could be sent back to China and with his health deteriorating, Li is struggling to care for his son.
“Right now, I want to get my wife out of prison first before thinking about what to do next,” he says.
Although Thailand does not officially allow refugees to settle in the country permanently, the UN estimates that it has hosted a million refugees in the past 40 years.
The deportations come against a backdrop of improving relations between Thailand and China, and as Beijing continues an unrelenting crackdown on democracy campaigners, human rights activists and lawyers at home and abroad.
More than 57,000 Chinese had asylum claims pending with the UNHCR at the end of last year, a fivefold increase in five years, according to the agency’s Global Trends Report.
Recent events, such as the disappearance of the Hong Kong booksellers, show that China’s determination to silence dissent goes far beyond its own borders.
Last year, five men linked to a Hong Kong bookstore disappeared one after another – one from Thailand; one from Hong Kong; and three on the Chinese mainland.
The bookstore dealt in publications critical of Chinese leaders.
All five men have since resurfaced. While most have revealed few details, Lam Wing Kee has said that he was held by Chinese authorities for more than eight months, that he was kept in a small room and repeatedly interrogated.
In Bangkok, Li Xiaolong continues to visit his wife and young son in detention as often as he can.
Two of his fellow political dissidents say they also live in constant fear.
Yan Bojun and Yu Yanhua arrived in Bangkok last year, after hiding in a truck’s secret compartment. It was the final leg of a complicated journey that had already taken them from China to Myanmar and then to Laos.
Yan says he decided to leave his homeland after witnessing the arrest of a fellow democracy activist.
The pair suspect that undercover Chinese agents are following them, citing suspicious men coming to their apartment block to demand their names and passports, and tailing them on the street.
“When a person like this takes an interest in us over a long period of time, we can’t help being suspicious,” says Yan.
The Thai and Chinese governments did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
But when a Chinese government spokeswoman was asked about Thailand’s repatriation of the ethnic Uighur refugees at a news conference last year, she said:
“Repatriating these illegal migrants to China is how countries deal with illegal immigration and human smuggling through the normal course of cooperation.
“It’s also what we should do to fulfill our international obligations.”
From the 101 East documentary, No Safe Haven. Watch the full film here.
Follow Lynn Lee and James Leong on Twitter: @lianainfilms
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