China (including Hong Kong and Tibet)

China hosted nearly 293,000 refugees at the end of 1999, the vast majority (292,000) from Vietnam (mostly ethnic Chinese) but also including about 800 from Laos, and smaller numbers from other countries. An unknown number – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of Kachin refugees from Burma were also in China, although none received assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

An estimated 50,000 North Koreans were in refugee-like circumstances in China.

China is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention but has no domestic law on refugee protection. For this reason, it allows UNHCR to conduct refugee status determinations and generally permits applicants to remain in China while these determinations are being made. In April, the Chinese government said it had drafted its first-ever regulation on refugees and reportedly planned to adopt it later in the year. At year's end, however, the regulation was not yet in effect.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) conducted a site visit to Hong Kong and mainland China in 1999, to assess the status of Vietnamese refugees remaining in Hong Kong as well as the reasons many Chinese fled Fujian Province to seek asylum in other countries.

Refugees from Vietnam

An estimated 292,000 ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam remained in mainland China at the end of 1999. (Although USCR has reported a figure of 281,000 in recent years, the higher number was provided by UNHCR in 1999 and reflects an increase due to births). 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 1999.

In April, Chinese officials said they had made strenuous efforts to address the placement needs of the refugees, who were scattered in 194 refugee settlements. Most settlements were located in southern and southwestern provinces, including Guangdong, Yunnan, Fujian, and Hainan, as well as the Guangxi Ahuang Autonomous Region.

China said the refugees enjoyed a living status equal to that of the local Han Chinese, with about 85 percent having achieved economic independence. The remaining 15 percent lived on state-run farms in remote and poor areas, where China said they were "still striving with other local residents to rise out of poverty with support from the Chinese government."

UNHCR funded projects throughout China to facilitate the integration of the refugees. It contributed to a revolving credit fund, established in 1994, to help solve the poverty problems of the 30,000 refugees living on state farms. UNHCR terminated its contributions to the fund in 1999 but continued to manage it and monitor the projects receiving loans.

Despite the apparent success of the integration, China had not yet granted citizenship to the refugees at year's end. Chinese officials said they would continue to promote voluntary repatriation and would also consider naturalization.

During USCR's site visit to China in July and August, UNHCR officials in Beijing estimated that perhaps five percent of the Vietnamese refugees in mainland China would repatriate if conditions allowed. The rest, they said, would prefer to remain in China. Although China and Vietnam held discussions on repatriation, they did not reach an agreement. UNHCR said it would continue pursuing Chinese citizenship for the Vietnamese, because "they are not treated as refugees but as overseas Chinese returning home."

In addition to the Vietnamese in mainland China, about 1,000 Vietnamese refugees (both ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese) remained in Hong Kong at year's end. Most resided, at least officially, in Pillar Point, Hong Kong's last remaining camp for Vietnamese refugees. 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, more than 1,500 Vietnamese remained in Hong Kong at the end of 1999, of which 968 had been determined to be refugees. Despite their refugee status, resettlement countries had not accepted them for admission.

During the year, only one Vietnamese refugee repatriated voluntarily from Hong Kong. Another 77 Vietnamese non-refugees returned to Vietnam under the Hong Kong government's Orderly Repatriation Program. Most had arrived in Hong Kong in 1997, after the 1996 completion of the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees. Vietnamese arriving after that date were classified as "illegal immigrants."

In July, USCR visited Hong Kong to assess the situation of the remaining Vietnamese. USCR found conditions at Pillar Point to be bleak, though adequate. The relief agency Caritas had run the camp since 1998. There were no medical facilities at the camp, although the government subsidized some off-site medical care for the residents.

Two groups of Vietnamese lived at the camp – ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese. The groups were generally segregated in their living quarters. In June, a riot broke out in the camp between ethnic Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese, after which some ethnic Chinese moved out of the camp. According to Caritas officials, most of the ethnic Chinese adults worked outside the camp, particularly in construction and the service industry, while most ethnic Vietnamese have had difficulty finding jobs. Caritas provided social services and some financial assistance for unemployed persons or those with other needs.

Most children attended local schools, but some ethnic Chinese children attended a camp-based school run by International Social Services (the local government did not allow them to attend school, arguing that, because this group had come to Hong Kong from the Chinese mainland, they should return there). A Caritas-run pre-school and day care were no longer open at year's end.

(In February 2000, the Hong Kong government announced it would allow nearly 1,400 Vietnamese remaining in Hong Kong, including nearly 1,000 refugees, to apply for permanent residence in the territory.)

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 800 Laotians remained in China at the end of 1999, all in Yunnan Province. China said they could remain in China indefinitely, although they did not have Chinese citizenship at year's end. According to UNHCR, the Laotians had "achieved a degree of self-reliance and have integrated into Chinese society" and therefore did 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 Burmese refugees in Yunnan. It was unclear, however, how many Kachin or other Burmese refugees were in China. UNHCR had no involvement with them.

North Koreans

An estimated 50,000 North Koreans were in refugee-like circumstances in China at the end of the year.

In previous years, USCR noted that "an unknown number" of North Koreans entered China. The exact number continued to be unknown during 1999, and estimates varied widely. China did not consider them refugees, saying they left North Korea solely because of food shortages and, therefore, that the UN Refugee Convention did not apply to them. However, a May 1999 UNHCR assessment mission to the China/North Korea border revealed the presence of some North Korean refugees among the undocumented North Korean population in China. The Chinese government reprimanded UNHCR for the results of the mission and refused to permit UNHCR's formal involvement with the population.

This finding suggested that North Korea – still a closely guarded communist state – created refugees as well as famine victims. A nongovernmental organization conducting extensive research on North Korea estimated that, at the end of the year, approximately 50,000 North Koreans in China were in need of protection and assistance, although the number who would qualify as refugees was uncertain. USCR has therefore added them to the "refugee-like" category.

Throughout 1999, although the famine had lessened somewhat from the previous year, North Koreans continued to flee across the Chinese border, with as many as 300 to 500 entering daily. The U.S. Institute for Peace estimated that at least 100,000 North Koreans had fled into China since 1995, while a South Korean charity put the number for the same period at 300,000. Government estimates were lower, with South Korea estimating 30,000 and China 10,000. A U.S.-based research organization estimated that 50,000 to 150,000 North Koreans were staying temporarily in China.

Most North Koreans entered the Yambian Korean Autonomous Prefecture – home to nearly one million Korean-Chinese – in China's Jilin Province. The border dividing the two countries remained 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.

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 the return of North Koreans who illegally cross the border. For several years, however, China informally tolerated the presence of North Koreans, even providing them assistance. In January 1999, that changed. China began expelling large numbers of North Koreans.

Chinese authorities used house-to-house searches and other means to supplement border apprehensions. The government also increased tenfold the fines for sheltering unauthorized entrants (up to $600, or about one year's income). China said it was taking such steps to reduce crime. Upon apprehending the North Koreans, Chinese authorities placed them in jail before handing them over to North Korean border guards. Many returnees were reportedly beaten and placed in labor camps or orphanages.

In December, the South Korean ambassador in Beijing asked China to stop returning North Koreans, saying that China had so far forcibly returned an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 North Koreans.

UNHCR was not aware of any protection provided to North Korean asylum seekers by the Chinese government. The number of North Koreans who sought asylum at foreign embassies in Beijing was also unknown.

(In January 2000, China forcibly repatriated seven North Koreans who had been apprehended by Russian border guards while crossing into Russia from China, and whom UNHCR had determined to be refugees. UNHCR filed an official protest with the Chinese government.)

Refugees from Tibet

China's continuing repression in Tibet led 2,182 Tibetans to flee into Nepal in 1999. UNHCR assisted them in continuing on to India, where a majority of Tibetan refugees live.

The year 1999 marked the 50th anniversary of both the founding of the People's Republic of China and the beginning of China's occupation of Tibet. Still viewing its occupation as the "liberation" of Tibet, the Chinese government denied that Tibetans continued to flee as refugees. During the year, China continued its policy of resettling ethnic Chinese into Tibet. The international community debated a World Bank proposal to help China relocate nearly 60,000 poor Chinese farmers onto more fertile land in Tibet. Critics said the proposal would further erode the rights of indigenous Tibetans.

Chinese Asylum Seekers from Fujian During the year, media attention highlighted the plight of Chinese asylum seekers, mostly from coastal Fujian Province, who fled by boat to various countries, including Canada and the United States (including the U.S. territory of Guam). Many of the asylum seekers paid organized smugglers to transport them, often aboard unseaworthy boats. Although most receiving countries generally viewed them as economic migrants, most of the asylum seekers claimed persecution based on China's one-child policy. The United States granted asylum to some Chinese on that basis.

In July, USCR traveled to Guam and China to assess the situation of Chinese asylum seekers. At that time, nearly 350 Chinese asylum seekers were living in a "tent city" on Guam, under detention by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (see United States). USCR also visited Fujian and Beijing to assess implementation of the one-child policy.

USCR found that while the only official sanction for violating the one-child policy was a fine, the Chinese government admitted it could not control how some local officials enforced the policy. While much of the Chinese population appeared to support the policy, some did not – particularly those with religious objections. Credible evidence existed that some Chinese women had been coerced or otherwise forced to undergo abortions or sterilization. The Chinese government said ethnic minorities, as well as the Vietnamese refugees, were exempt from the policy. However, some minorities, such as the Uighurs, said they had been forced to comply.


On December 20, Portugal transferred the island of Macau back to Chinese control after administering it for more than 400 years. China said it would administer Macau under the "one country, two systems" policy designed for Hong Kong. In recent years, Macau provided sanctuary to several hundred refugees from East Timor, also a former Portuguese colony. Although most East Timorese eventually traveled on to Australia or Portugal, some remained in Macau.


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