Nov 08, 2011

East Turkestan: Asylum quest: A Chinese dissident's journey

A Chinese dissident tells the story about his quest for asylum.

Below is an article published by AFP

The Chinese dissident stood in front of a map of Vietnam, looking for the best place to sneak across the border on his long quest for freedom.


"I want to try," said the bespectacled former physics student, who is in his late 30s. "I know it's very difficult but I cannot go back to China."


Without a passport Wang Weimin, whose name AFP has changed to protect him and his family, had already made it over the Chinese frontier and reached the Vietnamese capital Hanoi.


But once there, hungry and short of cash, Wang found that neither foreign embassies nor the United Nations refugee agency could accept his request for political asylum.


In June he decided there was no choice but to push on towards Thailand, "a free country".


"See you later," Wang said, smiling as he gave a slight wave to an AFP reporter. He walked off with determination, carrying a cloth bag containing two handwritten books which he said he penned in prison.


Chinese have been reluctant to make a similar journey since 20 Muslim Uighurs who escaped the far western Xinjiang region through Vietnam reached Phnom Penh only to be expelled in December 2009, said a source involved in refugee assistance.


The Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority, sought UN refugee status saying they risked torture in China. Phnom Penh called them illegal immigrants and sent them home.


"Apparently all of these guys came via Vietnam", said the refugee worker, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of her work.


Wang is not a Uighur but -- until his release from prison last year -- was one of well over 1,000 Chinese who rights monitors believe are incarcerated for their political and religious views.


Activists fear even more dissidents will be detained if Beijing proceeds with a plan to make it legal to secretly hold suspects in detention.

Wang said he spent more than a decade in prison in total, first in the mid-1990s for allegedly leading a small pro-democracy students' group.


In the early 2000s he was arrested again for distributing leaflets opposing authoritarian regimes and advocating democracy, and was sentenced to nine years for "inciting subversion", he said.

Wang spent time in solitary confinement and his sentence was unusually long, apparently because he was a repeat offender, rights campaigners say.


In May he fled his home and headed for Guangzhou city in southern China where he ignored police telephone calls demanding that he go back.


He continued south towards Guangxi province bordering northeastern Vietnam.


"As I was a criminal and am deprived of political rights, I cannot obtain a passport, so I had to secretly cross the border."


Wang said a friend introduced him to a Vietnamese woman who took him on a small road over the frontier, where Vietnamese border police forced him to hand over 2,000 yuan (314 dollars).

"From there my friend took me to Hanoi," he said.


Bearing a hand-written document entitled "Political Asylum Request," Wang visited some foreign embassies in Hanoi but said they could not help him. Neither could the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees office (UNHCR).


"We can only accept and process asylum claims if the host government agrees, and the government of Vietnam does not allow us to do so," explained Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR's regional spokeswoman.


"I would like to know," the always-polite Wang asked an AFP reporter at the time. "Is there any hope?" It seemed that hope could only come with more risk, more hardship, and more determination.


He rode a bus for about two days south to Ho Chi Minh City, getting closer to Cambodia which he had to cross to reach Thailand.


After several days trying to find a way over the border, another Chinese told him about a small river crossing.


"I got rid of my baggage and got on a boat and crossed the river. After I crossed, there was a Cambodian guard who asked for my passport. I told him I had no passport. I thought I was finished," Wang said.


A bribe solved the problem.


"He shook my hand and told me in Chinese I could go."


After sleeping in a plantation of bitter melon, Wang boarded a minibus to Phnom Penh but did not stay long "because the Cambodian government always sends Chinese political refugees back to China".


That afternoon, another bus dropped him at the Thai border where a motorcycle driver helped him find a local "snakehead", a people trafficker.


"I gave the snakehead 40 dollars and he took me to Thailand," Wang said.


It was July 1. One last bus ride got him to Bangkok.


More than a month after he fled his home, and about two weeks after leaving Hanoi, Wang had reached the "free country" he had longed for.


But freedom brought despair, frustration and uncertainty.


He said his money ran out and he had to sleep on the doorstep of the UNHCR for several days while he filed his refugee claim.


An initial decision on the case could take months and in late July Wang wrote to AFP that he "cannot survive here".


Thanks to the kindness of others, his spirits have since picked up.


"I may look for a job, but it will have to be under the table... There are a lot of overseas Chinese here, so maybe they can help me," he said.


"What country I go to, I can't say right now. I don't know."


As of January this year, UNHCR was processing more than 7,700 asylum claims from people from China.


Most travelled by plane, with the United States, France, South Africa, Canada, Australia and Britain the top locations for applications.


The refugee worker, from a humanitarian group which assisted him, said that if Wang can be patient he will likely be rewarded with asylum, probably in the United States.


His case is "one of the strongest ones I've seen... but it's just going to take time," she said.