Chinese Christian Asylum Seekers Exiled In Thailand Leave For US
By Nontarat Phaicharoen and Mem Satitpanyapan
Dozens of Chinese Christian asylum seekers who fled alleged religious persecution in their homeland left Thailand for the United States after being released from Thai custody for an immigration violation, police and United Nations officials said Friday.
The 63 members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church (also known as the Mayflower Church) had feared Thailand might deport them to China, but American officials and a lawmaker reportedly intervened and persuaded Thai authorities to send them to the U.S.
“They flew out last night on multiple flights,” a police official who works closely with Gen. Surachate Hakparn, the deputy national police chief, told reporters in Bangkok on Friday.
Earlier in the week, Surachate said that Thai authorities had met with American Embassy officials and the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR to arrange for the Chinese Christians to be sent to the U.S. for resettlement, and their departure from Thailand was expected to happen on Friday.
“We understand this group left to the U.S. However, we are unable to provide details on the procedures involving these cases due reasons of confidentiality and protection,” Morgane Roussel-Hemery, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, told BenarNews in an email Friday.
The American embassy in Bangkok declined to confirm the information and referred questions to the U.S. State Department.
While talking to reporters on Wednesday, Surachate said that authorities arrested the members of the church group last week after the National Police Bureau launched a crackdown on undocumented Chinese visitors who may commit crimes while staying in major Thai cities such as Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket.
The 63 were detained in Pattaya and tried at a court there for overstaying their visas by at least six months, officials said. They were fined and then bused to Bangkok, where they were placed in immigration detention before their release. The mothers and children in the group were held at a center for mothers and children in Don Mueang district, while the rest were held at the Suan Plu immigration detention center, according to Surachate.
During a visit to Washington in late February, Surachate said he met with U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, who asked the senior Thai police official to help take care of the Chinese Christians. Smith, a New Jersey Republican who chairs the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, did not immediately respond to an email query from BenarNews.
Surachate met with officials from the American embassy and UNHCR on Wednesday and an agreement was reached to send the Christian exiles to the U.S., he said.
“We came to the conclusion to send them to the U.S. as soon as possible,” Surachate told reporters later that day but asked that the information not be made public until after the group had departed for the U.S.
The Chinese exiles fled China in 2019 amid what they said was escalating persecution. The group first traveled to South Korea’s Jeju Island, and then to Thailand in 2022, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news organization affiliated with BenarNews.
“Based on the investigation, these people for two years were seeking asylum and a certificate from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Korea, but to no avail,” Surachate said.
“Therefore, they traveled to Thailand because they heard it is easier to obtain UNHCR papers here…They received the certificate just after four months of arrival. We did not know they already had papers when they were arrested,” he added.
Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but the non-refoulement principle under international human rights law states that people cannot be sent back to a country where they are likely to be persecuted, tortured, mistreated or have their human rights violated.
According to U.S.-based Freedom House, Christianity has expanded rapidly in China since 1980, but is strictly controlled by the state.
“The Chinese authorities seek to monitor and control Christians by encouraging them – sometimes forcefully – to join state-sanctioned churches that are affiliated with ‘patriotic’ associations and led by politically vetted clergy,” said a 2017 Freedom House report.
“Religious leaders and congregants who refuse to register for theological or practical reasons risk having their place of worship shuttered and face detention, beatings, dismissal from employment, or imprisonment.
Freedom Seekers International, an American faith-based group that assists people fleeing from religious persecution aboard, was working this week to arrange for the members of the Mayflower Church to be allowed to travel to Texas.
“FSI – Freedom Seekers International has been working with them for two years. And … we are taking the lead on their resettlement in the United States,” Deana Brown, the founder and CEO of the group based in Tyler, Texas, told BenarNews in an email on Wednesday.
Several organizations were working with the State Department to facilitate the release of the Mayflower Church people from Thai custody, she said.
“Since Monday we have been able to take supplies daily to the detention center for the 63 Mayflowers: baby formula, water, Pedialyte, diarrhea medicine, bug bite, medicine, underwear for everyone, a change of clothes for the children, shirts for the adults, snacks, bread, toilet paper, etc.,” Brown said.