Asylum seekers, waiting to move to Canada where they were accepted as refugees, sent back to China.
Bangkok, Thailand – The wife of one of two Chinese dissidents forcibly deported from Thailand to China has accused Chinese officials of posing as humanitarian workers to trick the men into signing their own deportation papers.
On November 12, without informing their families, Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping were taken from a Thai detention centre in the capital Bangkok and sent back to China. There has been no information about either man since then.
Both were recognised as refugees by the UN and had been granted asylum by the Canadian government.
They were arrested in Thailand in late October and placed in the Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok. It was here that Chu Ling, the wife of Jiang Yefei, says Chinese officials visited the two men.
“They said they were from the United Nations,” Chu told Al Jazeera. “They said they were here to help them and that they must sign some papers to allow them to travel to Canada. But the document was in Thai. They signed it even though they couldn’t understand the words. Later, we found out that they had signed papers agreeing to be deported back to China.”
Chu said officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) discussed this incident with her. However, in an email to Al Jazeera, the UNHCR said it was “not aware of any such impersonation at detention centres run by the [Thailand] government”.
Jiang Yefei was trembling and calling for help when he was taken from the jail cell in Bangkok in early November to be forcibly deported back to China, his wife said..
Dong Guangping, his friend in the pro-democracy movement of Chinese dissidents in Thailand, was deported alongside him.
“I heard from a contact person who was in the prison, my husband was shaking. He was very, very scared,” Chu said. “He was screaming, ‘Please call everyone and tell them I am being taken away and please ask them to stop me at the airport.'”
Days after their deportation, the Thai government said the men had been deported to face charges of human trafficking in China. The families of the men deny they were involved in these activities.
Both Jiang and Dong had long campaigned against human rights abuses carried out by the Chinese government. Both had been imprisoned in China and both had chosen, at separate times, to flee China to what they considered the relative safety of Thailand.
Refugee groups and human rights defenders expressed alarm at the deportations of men recognised as refugees and granted resettlement in Canada.
“By sending those two refugees back to face likely torture and abuse in China, the Thai military government showed it is completely shameless and doesn’t care one bit about the human rights of refugees,” Brad Adams from Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera.
“Not surprisingly, the more than 10,000 urban refugees from all around the world who are hiding in Bangkok are more fearful than ever, and desperately hoping that the governments they are fleeing from will not be next in line to ask for the Thai junta’s help,” Adams added.
Jiang fled China in 2008 after attempting to bring an alternative human rights “torch” to China ahead of the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing.
“Jiang wanted to join the alternative torch relay that was touring the world. He wanted to bring that torch to China,” explained Chu. “A parcel arrived from overseas. It had the human rights torch inside. But it had been intercepted by state security services and Jiang was arrested.”
Chu said Jiang was tortured while in prison. When he was released, he lost his job. When he learned he was going to be re-arrested, he decided to flee to Thailand.
Dong fled China in 2014 after he was held for eight months in secret detention. He and 10 others had been caught attending an event to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising. Dong had previously served a three-year jail term for subversion.
Both men continued their political activities in Thailand, believing they were safe from the long arm of the Chinese state security apparatus. Jiang became active in the Federation for a Democratic China, a group of Chinese dissidents in exile.
But when Jiang created a series of cartoons mocking the Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, the Chinese authorities tried to silence him.
In China, state security officers visited his brother and issued an ominous warning. “They said, he must lower his political activities or else they would have him deported back to China,” Chu recalled.
Jiang told them not to worry because his refugee status would protect him.
But then the phone calls started.
Chu said strangers started to call their home. “I was aware of some phone calls from people we don’t know. They would ask ‘where are you?’ They knew that Jiang was doing the cartoons and the person on the phone warned him to stop making the cartoons.”
In late October, Jiang was arrested at his home by Thai police officers, two of whom spoke perfect Chinese.
He was charged with entering the country illegally. Dong was visiting his friend but, as he had no valid passport, he was also arrested. Chu witnessed the arrest.
“Dong was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t have a passport, so they arrested him too,” said Chu.
After their arrests, pro-democracy advocates, recognising the seriousness of the case, lobbied for a country to quickly accept the men as refugees. Within 10 days the men and their families were accepted for resettlement in Canada.
“It was so quick this time,” journalist and pro-democracy campaigner Sheng Xue told Al Jazeera.
“I thought they would be safe. I never thought that they would dare to send them back to China once they had been accepted as refugees and given resettlement in Canada.”
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Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 UN refugee convention, but the government has always observed it in practice. Bangkok is home to a large population of refugees, including many Chinese dissidents.
“Jiang’s safety depended on the international community, but the Chinese government is very strong. They did not have enough power to stop Thailand sending Jiang back to China,” said Chu from her new home in Canada.
Three other Chinese nationals were also forcibly returned to China along with Dong and Jiang. Their identities have not yet been confirmed.
In July, Thailand was criticised after 109 ethnic Uighur Muslims were deported to China.
“These men, this is not a single case. There are many other cases,” Sheng Xue told Al Jazeera in her capacity as president of the Federation for Democratic China.
“The Chinese regime is getting stronger. They don’t need to listen to the international community anymore. Everything has changed in this relationship. Western countries are now too reliant on China and too compliant with the human rights abuses perpetuated by the Chinese regime,” Sheng said.