Mainland Chinese dissident Liu Xinglian marked his 64th birthday on Wednesday at Taiwan’s Taoyuan airport, one of two refugees who have been in limbo there for more than 100 days, hoping for asylum overseas.
Their case has parallels with that of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the Saudi teenager who was given sanctuary in Canada on Saturday after she used social media to shame Thai authorities against forcibly returning her to her family. She had sought refuge in Australia until Canada gave her asylum.
Liu and his friend Yan Kefen, 44, applied for asylum in Canada and posted updates on social media from the airport to highlight their situation.
“Inside the airport, we cannot breathe fresh air and there’s no sunlight,” Liu said. The pair have spent much of the last three months in a fluorescent-lit fourth-floor room, subsisting on a diet of boxed meals provided by airlines.
“That cannot be too healthy right?” he said.
Liu and Yan are hostages of Taiwan’s international status and its domestic politics.
The self-ruled island is not recognised by most nations and has no United Nations representation, meaning the UN’s refugee agency does not operate there.
In recent decades, governments have been loathe to allow in those fleeing mainland China, fearful of angering Beijing or encouraging a deluge. Taiwan does not have its own laws to protect refugees.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s government – which takes a more sceptical view of Beijing and 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.
They did not intend to end up in Taiwan. Both fell foul of mainland Chinese authorities because of their political activism and fled to Thailand. Yan arrived in 2015; Liu two years later.
Bangkok does not recognise asylum applications and outsources the determination of refugee status to the UN’s UNHCR, which tries to resettle legitimate claimants in a third country. The waiting list is a long one.
Both Yan and Liu received refugee status from the UNHCR and were happy to remain in Thailand while they sought asylum.
Then, Thai police started paying them frequent visits.
“I felt my life was in danger in Bangkok,” Yan said. “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 such dissidents.
More than 100 Uygurs and a number of campaigners, some of whom had been granted asylum in Canada, have been sent back by Thailand during the last five years.
Bookseller Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, disappeared from the resort town of Pattaya and resurfaced on mainland Chinese state TV to make a “confession”.
Liu and Yan decided to leave, landing in Taipei on September 27 last year.
“We just wanted to get out of Thailand when we boarded that plane,” Yan, who also uses the name Yan Bojun, said. “We did not have any plans except asking for refuge during our stopover.”
Liu and Yan do not fear deportation and said they had 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 said.
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”.
It said 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.
At Taoyuan airport, 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 Lunar New Year. If I cannot, I cannot. There’s nothing I can do.”