Last week, Thai authorities apprehended 63 religious refugees from China, including 28 adults and 35 children from 16 families, for overstaying their visas at the Long Lake Hillside Resort in the Bang Lamung district in Pattaya.
According to Bangkok Post, the asylum seekers belong to the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church and were staying in Thailand to escape persecution by Chinese authorities.
Chief of the Nong Phrue Police Station, Pol Col Thawee Kudthalaeng said regarding the arrest that the police were acting on the information that many Chinese nationals had been staying at the resort for a long time.
Two American nationals who were trying to help the group relocate to the US have been detained as well. But while they were able to retain their passports, those of the Chinese citizens have been confiscated by Thai authorities.
Human Rights Watch reported that the asylum seekers were unable to renew their visas due to Thailand’s immigration regulations that require Chinese nationals to report to the Chinese Embassy first to renew their visas. However, reporting to the embassy could mean deportation to China, where they could face persecution, torture, and other serious harm.
In China, leaders and members of “house churches” who refuse to join official churches increasingly face harassment, arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment, said Elaine Pearson, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Thai authorities need to recognize the grave dangers facing Christians back in China and under no circumstances force them to return,” she said.
According to the Wall Street Journal, two Americans, Deana Brown, the founder of a Texas-based non-profit organization that assists people in escaping religious persecution, and Stacy Nichols, a nurse who volunteers with the same organization, were also detained while attempting to help the asylum seekers move to the US.
Brown said that she was seeking to resettle the church members in Tyler, Texas, where her group is situated, but they were having visa issues in Thailand. She added that trying to renew their Thai visas was just not an option as they would have to go through the Chinese Embassy.
“There was no way, because as soon as they walk into the Chinese Embassy they’re gone, we would not see them again. They’ve been hiding out since then,” she said.
The Shenzhen-based church members began their journey three years ago by escaping to the South Korean island of Jeju, prompted by growing government persecution of the minority group.
They arrived in Thailand last year to submit their visa applications and seek protection from the UN refugee agency.