CHON BURI: Sixty-three Chinese nationals detained in Pattaya for overstaying their visas are members of a self-exiled Christian congregation seeking United Nations protection from religious persecution, their supporters say.
Two Americans who have been trying to help the group relocate to the United States have also been detained, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Local police and immigration officers rounded up 63 members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church on Thursday at the Long Lake Hillside Resort in Bang Lamung district. They were acting on information that many Chinese nationals had been staying there for a long time, said Pol Col Thawee Kudthalaeng, chief of the Nong Phrue police station.
They were taken to a police Immigration Bureau facility in Pattaya where they remained on Friday, the Journal reported, quoting church pastor Pan Yongguang and an American activist who has been supporting the congregation’s efforts to seek asylum.
They were expected to be brought before an immigration court for a deportation hearing but it was not clear how soon this would happen.
The group consists of 32 adults and 31 children from 16 families. They were holding Chinese passports and some had cards from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The cards had expired, said a source, while some children had birth certificates purportedly issued by a hospital in Bangkok.
The 32 Chinese adults were charged with overstaying their visas, the Australian news outlet ABC quoted Pol Col Thawee as saying. The children were not charged and the two American citizens were not placed under arrest, he added.
Most of those being held had overstayed in the country for less than one year and some had overstayed for only a month.
The Journal identified the two Americans as Deana Brown, founder of a Texas-based nonprofit group that helps people flee religious persecution, and Stacy Nichols, a nurse who volunteers with the same group.
Ms Brown said she was working to resettle the church members in Tyler, Texas, where her organisation is based, but that they had run into problems with their visas in Thailand.
She told The Associated Press that when the group looked into renewing their visas, they had been told there was a new requirement that any Chinese citizen renewing a visa in Thailand must report to the Chinese Embassy first. The visas expired several months ago.
“When they told us that, we knew that nobody could get their visas,” she said.
“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 she and Mrs Nichols still had their passports but those of the Chinese group were seized.
According to the Journal, the members of the Shenzhen-based church began their journey three years ago by fleeing to the South Korean island of Jeju, spurred by what congregants described as intensifying government persecution.
Last year, Mr Pan brought the group to Thailand, where they submitted applications in September asking the UN refugee agency for protection.
Mr Pan told the Journal that the raid in Pattaya took place after a church member told the congregation earlier in March that he wished to return to China, and that he had spoken to Chinese security officials. The church expelled that member soon after, citing concerns for the safety of its followers, he said.
Bob Fu, the founder of ChinaAid, another Texas Christian group helping the church, said that American lawmakers were pressing the US State Department to get involved.
In a statement on his website, Mr Fu said that time was of the essence.
“Before the Chinese government demands repatriation, the international community can help prevent this tragedy from happening,” he wrote.
One of the Chinese boys rounded up at a Pattaya resort on Thursday is directed into a police pickup truck. (Photo: Chaiyot Pupattanapong)