China hosted nearly 282,000 refugees at the end of 1998, including 281,000 from Vietnam, about 800 from Laos, and smaller numbers from other countries. An unknown number – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of Kachin refugees from Burma were in China at year's end, although none received UNHCR assistance.
An unknown number of North Koreans entered or attempted to enter China during the year. China did not consider them refugees, believing they left North Korea solely because of food shortages. None approached UNHCR.
Refugees from Vietnam
An estimated 281,000 ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam remained in mainland China at the end of 1998. Most arrived in 1979, at the time of the China-Vietnam border war. China recognized all as refugees, and UNHCR provided rehabilitation and reintegration assistance. None repatriated in 1998.
An additional 1,022 Vietnamese refugees remained in Hong Kong at year's end. Prior to the July 1997 reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese control, China had insisted that all Vietnamese in Hong Kong be repatriated or resettled. Nevertheless, 1,627 Vietnamese remained in Hong Kong at the end of 1998, of which 1,022 had been determined to be refugees.
The remaining refugees included: Vietnamese screened in (determined to be refugees) under the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees (CPA); Vietnamese who were screened out (determined not to be refugees) under the CPA but whom UNHCR later recognized under its mandate; and Vietnamese who arrived before June 16, 1988, the CPA cut-off date used by Hong Kong, who are considered prima facie refugees not subject to individual screening. Despite their refugee status, resettlement countries have refused to admit them, usually on drug- or other crime-related grounds.
In early 1998, the Hong Kong Executive Council officially ended Hong Kong's status as a port of asylum, a status instituted by the British in 1979. The elimination of that status means that all "illegal immigrants," including Vietnamese, are to be deported immediately upon arrival, without access to a refugee-screening process.
During the year, 48 Vietnamese non-refugees repatriated voluntarily from Hong Kong. Most had arrived in Hong Kong in 1997, after the 1988 completion of the CPA. Vietnamese arriving after that date were classified as "illegal immigrants."
In March, Hong Kong closed the New Horizons Vietnamese refugee departure center, taking "a further step toward the end of the whole Vietnamese boat people saga," according to a local government spokesperson. Prior to the center's closure, its 270 undocumented Vietnamese residents were transferred to the Pollar Point center in Hong Kong's "new territories."
The closure was the latest in an effort to consolidate the remaining Vietnamese and find new uses for the 14 centers that previously housed more than 64,000 Vietnamese. In 1997, Hong Kong closed the Kai Tak transit center and the Whitehead detention center. The north camp of High Island detention center was closed in January 1998.
Refugees from Laos, Burma
Several thousand refugees fled from Laos to China during the 1980s. Most repatriated under a 1991 agreement between the two countries. Only 805 Laotians remained in China at the end of 1998, according to UNHCR. China has said that all Laotian refugees may remain in China indefinitely. According to UNHCR, the Laotians have "integrated into Chinese society" and, therefore, do not receive UNHCR assistance.
Thousands of ethnic Kachin refugees from Burma sought refuge in China's Yunnan Province beginning in 1992. They fled Burmese military abuses, including execution, rape, torture, destruction of villages and crops, and forced porterage. Although China is considered Burma's greatest political and military ally, Yunnan authorities were reportedly assisting those Burmese refugees who remained at the end of 1998. It was unclear, however, how many were still in China.
With famine continuing in 1998, an unknown number of North Koreans fled, or attempted to flee, across the border into China. The U.S. Institute of Peace estimated that at least 100,000 North Koreans have fled into China in search of food since 1995. Some refugee agencies speculated that persons facing persecution from the closely guarded communist state may have been among those fleeing. Because access to both sides of the border is severely restricted, refugee estimates are uncertain. UNHCR staff in Beijing have conducted several cursory visits to the Chinese side of the border, primarily to consult with officials and occasionally assist with the onward migration of certain cases. However, the agency has no formal presence at the border and has reportedly been denied requests to conduct more thorough assessments.
Most North Koreans reportedly entered China at the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province, more than 968 km (600 miles) northeast of Beijing. In September, a Japanese journalist reported that as many as 200,000 North Koreans were staying in China's three northeastern provinces near the border.
During the year, the 1,000-mile border dividing the two countries was extremely dangerous, often deadly. In 1997, North Korea reportedly instituted a "shoot-to-kill" policy on the border. Those who made it across usually tried to make their way inland, dodging checkpoints, border guards, and Chinese residents willing to seize them for the bounty offered by Chinese authorities. Many were believed to have died of cold or starvation while hiding in the wilderness. Chinese who attempted to help the escapees were subject to severe penalties. Nevertheless, in some cases, China's ethnic Korean population took the risk of assisting the new arrivals with food, shelter, and jobs.
As an observer on the Chinese side of the border noted, "In every cow pen, shack and deserted house lie the discarded rags of North Korean clothes, quickly swapped for Chinese clothes often stolen off washing lines, which provide an essential disguise."
A black market in smuggled North Korean brides for China's ethnic Korean men reportedly flourished during the year. According to a South Korean aid worker, "North Koreans have already cannibalized a large portion of their factories and clear-cut a large percentage of their forests to trade to China for grain. They need other things to trade, so they are trading their girls."
Although a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, China has since 1986 had a treaty with North Korea saying it will return "defectors." China's Jilin Province also has a law that requires repatriation of North Koreans who illegally cross the border. In recent years, however, Chinese authorities have informally tolerated the presence of North Koreans, even providing them assistance.
In February, responding to USCR about the North Koreans' refugee status , the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated, "In recent years, due to North Korea's economic situation, especially its grain shortage, a small number of North Korean border residents often illegally enter Chinese territory by crossing the Sino-Korean frontier. Whenever we find them, we take action to persuade them to go back to their own country. As we understand it, according to international practice, people in such circumstances as theirs are not recognized as refugees."
USCR publicly responded to China's contention by saying that some of the North Koreans crossing into China might wish to apply for asylum and should be given the opportunity to do so. In addition, said USCR, "China has a humanitarian obligation to help people survive even if they are not seeking asylum."
In early December, China forcibly repatriated 69 North Korean men, women, and children rescued from a barge in the Yellow Sea. A Chinese official denied that the group was fleeing famine, stating, "They are not refugees. Large groups like this always live and work with their families on the ship."
In late December, in response to China's repatriating dozens of North Koreans, Seoul urged Beijing to approach the issue from a humanitarian perspective. South Korea also raised the issue with UNHCR, which pledged to continue discussing the concerns with Chinese officials.
UNHCR was not aware of any protection provided to North Korean asylum seekers by the Chinese government, and the number of North Koreans who sought asylum at foreign embassies in Beijing was unknown.
Late in 1997, Hong Kong newspapers reported that a growing number of North Koreans were seeking asylum in Hong Kong. The sensitivity of such requests was demonstrated in April 1998, when a high-level North Korean official reportedly requested asylum after getting off a train from mainland China. The man approached a police officer and requested asylum while his traveling companions were not looking. Details of the request and the outcome were closely guarded.
(In January 1999, after years of generally tolerating the presence of thousands of North Korean "illegal immigrants," China began expelling large numbers of North Koreans. Chinese authorities used house searches and other means to supplement border apprehensions. China said it was taking such steps to reduce crime. North Koreans apprehended by China are reportedly placed in Chinese jails before being handed over to North Korean border guards. Many are then reportedly beaten by the guards and/or placed in North Korean labor camps.)
Refugees from Tibet
China's continuing repression in Tibet led an estimated 3,100 Tibetans to flee into Nepal in 1998. All but about 140 were considered "persons of concern" to UNHCR. The Tibetans all continued on to India, where a majority of Tibetan refugees live. UNHCR provided a travel stipend to all refugees except those who entered Nepal with valid travel documents and Chinese permission.
In September, during her first visit to China, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson briefly stopped in Tibet. She characterized the region as "very restrictive and very difficult. In October, China signed a key human rights document, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. By the end of the year, however, China's legislature had neither ratified the accord nor eliminated laws that conflict with it (China signed the other major human rights instrument – the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights – in 1997 but, as of the end of 1998, had not ratified it). The government continued to crack down on political dissidents and suppress democratic organizations.
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