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World Fears of deportation to China spur dissidents to flee former safe haven Thailand

Gu Qiao and her one-year-old son, Li Yusen, in detention in Pathio Thailand. The two were among nine Chinese dissidents and Falun Gong practitioners who tried to escape Thailand by boat, but were driven back to a shore. Five of them now fear deportation.

A warm breeze blew under clear skies Monday night as a small group of Chinese dissidents boarded a yacht in Pattaya, a popular beach destination in Thailand.

They were not on a tourist ride. They were trying to escape.

They piloted the boat south, steeling themselves for a long voyage ahead – perhaps to Australia, nearly 5,000 kilometres away, or New Zealand, 10,000 kilometres distant.

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But the dangers at sea, they felt, paled beside the risk of staying in Thailand, where each of them – democracy activists, rights defenders, Falun Gong practitioners and children – feared deportation back to China, and persecution by authorities there. In recent months, others have already been rounded up and sent back.

"Chinese refugees in Thailand all feel a real sense of danger," said Zhang Wei, 47, a Chinese investor who had championed democracy rights. Unable to quickly secure legal resettlement to other countries as political refugees, they have now turned to other means.

"We are trying every way possible to attempt to leave the country."

But just 26 hours after leaving Pattaya, they were back on Thai soil, their hopes of escape crushed by a furious storm that damaged their boat and pushed them back to shore, where they were picked up local police.

Now, five members of the group fear deportation. Thai police discovered four held expired visas. A fifth, democracy activist Li Xiaolong, who had been the boat's captain, is being held for human smuggling.

Each of the nine hold protection letters from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

But that document has proven scant protection for Chinese dissidents in Thailand. In recent months, at least two writers have been captured by men believed to be Chinese agents, and smuggled to China. Thai authorities have arrested and deported others, including two men sent back to China after Canada agreed to resettle them.

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Mr. Zhang and three others have valid documents and are free to go, but stayed in hopes of helping their fellow travellers.

Police have said "they would follow procedures, which means sending them to court and then to the immigration bureau. Then they will send them back" to China, said Mr. Zhang, speaking from the police station in Pathio, the central Thai district where the group hit land after their ill-fated trip.

For years, migrants and refugees have fled to Thailand to escape persecution and seek better economic prospects. Roughly 8,000 to 10,000 urban refugees now live in Thailand, Human Rights Watch estimates.

Among them are a small number of Chinese dissidents, who have experienced detention and harassment at home for their religion and willingness to question authorities. Thailand was considered a relatively safe waypoint to other countries.

Now, however, as Bangkok seeks closer economic ties with Beijing, local authorities have begun sending back people China considers criminals. Chinese dissidents in Thailand say they have been followed, and suspect their phones have been tapped. Some move homes regularly in hopes of escaping arrest.

The Thai foreign ministry did not reply to a request for comment.

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That some Chinese would attempt a high-stakes flight by sea is "not surprising at all" given given Thailand's weak protections for asylum-seekers, said Amy Smith, executive director at human rights advocacy group Fortify Rights.

"This goes to show the level of desperation. The options in Thailand are either indefinite detention or being sent back to a country where you are certainly going to face persecution or death. So taking a boat with a hope of just reaching land or some place of safety – that becomes really your only choice."

The nine on the boat included Mr. Li, his wife Gu Qiao, their two children – one and seven – and two of Mr. Li's brothers. Falun Gong practitioners Song Zhiyu and Dong Juming joined them. Together, they pooled three-million baht ($114,000), to buy a small 13-metre yacht, equipped with two bedrooms and a small living room.

They loaded it with rice, meat and eggs, and plotted a GPS course out of Thai waters. They expected to stop first in Singapore, before travelling onwards. The plan was, however, ill-defined: Mr. Zhang believed they would sail 30,000 kilometres to reach Australia, when the actual distances are far less.

But after travelling roughly 200 kilometres, the yacht ran into a fearsome storm, which kicked up swells four to five metres high. The violence of the waves broke the boat's steering mechanism. Those on board repaired it, only to have it break again.

"We were almost dead. It was so stormy. I have sailed before, but I've never, never seen such a strong storm," said Li Shaojun, 43, who fled his home in Guangxi province, after being detained by police for protesting land seizures. He arrived in Thailand two months ago.

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His brother, Li Xiaolong, had been part of the unsuccessful effort to fight the deportation of Jiang Yeping and Dong Guangping, the two men approved to leave for Canada before Thai authorities handed them over to China.

Mr. Dong, 54, the Falun Gong practitioner from Hebei province, fled persecution in China in February, 2015. He applied for refugee status, but soon grew despondent with the achingly slow process.

"Based on how things are arranged now, I'm afraid it will take five years for a person to leave for a third country," he said. "And we want to leave Thailand as quickly as we can. The future is very unpredictable."

They knew, too, that at least one other similar group had made the trip successfully. In April, 2012, 10 Chinese Falun Gong believers landed in Darwin, Australia, after fleeing on a boat from Malaysia. They applied for asylum in Australia, although it's not clear what happened to them. Australian immigration authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The group who left Monday made it nowhere near that far.

With a broken boat and no way to steer effectively, they floated to a beach at Thung Sang Bay, nearly 300 kilometres southwest of their departure point, on the opposite side of the Gulf of Thailand. By the time they arrived late Tuesday, a half-metre of water sloshed around the bottom of the stricken boat. Their clothes were soaked, but the police who picked them up "didn't try to warm us up. Instead, they detained us," Mr. Li said.

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Police have tried to separate the two children, ages one and seven, from their parents, saying they cannot stay in prison. But the family has fought to stay together. Li Minrui, the second brother, scuffled with police on Thursday, who placed him in a chokehold and handed him the seven-year-old boy. The boy is now staying in a hotel room, unsure what fate awaits him or his parents.

"He is fine but terrified," Li Minrui said.

For other Chinese dissidents in Thailand, meanwhile, the attempted boat escape has created a new sense of urgency. Joseph Shi, a city councillor in Cremona, Alta., has begged the Canadian government to bring back his brother and his family, who are currently in Bangkok.

He was told the resettlement had been approved. "But now some officials are using the medical exam process to drag things on." He worries the five dissidents in Pathio will be deported, and, "I am very afraid that the same fate will happen to my brother soon."

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