TAIPEI • Chinese dissident Liu Xinglian marked his 64th birthday yesterday at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (TTIA), one of two refugees who have been trapped in limbo there for more than 100 days, hoping for asylum overseas.
Their case has parallels with that of Rahaf Mohammed, the Saudi teen who was given sanctuary in Canada after she sensationally deployed social media to shame Thai authorities against forcibly returning her to her family.
But the Chinese asylum seekers have received little international attention or solidarity.
Like Rahaf, Liu and his friend Yan Kefen, 44, have applied for asylum in Canada and posted updates on social media from the airport highlighting their plight.
“Inside the airport we can’t breathe fresh air and there’s no sunlight,” Liu told AFP by phone from the fluorescent-lit fourth-floor room in transit where the pair have spent much of the last three months, subsisting on a diet of boxed meals provided by airlines.
“That can’t be too healthy right?” he fretted.
Liu and Yan are hostage to Taiwan’s unusual international status and its domestic politics.
The self-ruled island is not recognised by most nations and has no United Nations (UN) representation, meaning the UN’s refugee agency does not operate there.
And while Taiwan’s current polity was founded by people fleeing China’s civil war, it does not have local laws to protect refugees.
In recent decades, governments have been loathe to allow in those fleeing the authoritarian mainland, fearful of angering Beijing or encouraging a deluge.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s government — which takes a more sceptical view of Beijing and vocally pushes its human rights credentials — has so far made no moves to deport Liu and Yan.
As a result, they are stuck — blocked from entering Taiwan, yet unable to leave the transit area.
The pair never intended to end up in Taiwan. Both fell foul of China’s authorities for political activism and fled to Thailand; Yan arriving in 2015, Liu in 2017.
Bangkok does not recognise asylum applications and outsources the determination of refugee status to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which tries to resettle legitimate claimants in a third country. But the waiting list is notoriously long.
Both Yan and Liu received refugee status from the UNHCR — they sent AFP copies of their documentation — and were happy to remain in Thailand while they sought asylum.
But then Thai police started paying them frequent visits.
“I felt my life was in danger in Bangkok,” Yan told AFP. “I was also afraid Thai police would deport me back to China.”
They had reason to worry. Thailand has moved closer to Beijing since generals seized power in 2014, showing a willingness to forcibly return Chinese dissidents.
More than 100 Uighurs and a slew of activists, some of whom had been granted asylum in Canada, have been sent back during the last five years.
Bookseller Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, disappeared from the resort town of Pattaya and resurfaced on Chinese state television making a “confession”.
Liu and Yan decided to make a run for it, landing in Taipei on Sept 27.
“We just wanted to get out of Thailand when we boarded that plane,” Yan, who also uses the name Yan Bojun, recalled. “We did not have any plans except asking for refuge during our stopover.”
Liu and Yan do not currently fear imminent deportation and said they have been treated well by Taiwanese officials.
“We don’t want to create trouble for Taiwan, but we need to go on to Facebook and Twitter so that people will not forget us,” Yan explained.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council — the office that deals with the Chinese mainland — said it recognised “our country’s mechanism for dealing with refugee claimants is not yet adequate”.
But the office added that it and other government agencies were committed to “upholding human rights and also the safety of these two persons”.
Canada’s consulate in Hong Kong declined to comment citing privacy rules.
Back at TTIA, all Yan and Liu can do is wait. “I don’t know how much longer I have to stay at this airport,” Yan said.
“I can only hope I can leave before the Chinese New Year. If I can’t, I can’t. There’s nothing I can do.” — AFP