U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - China (Including Tibet)

China hosted more than 345,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2001. The vast majority (295,000, of whom 1,000 were in Hong Kong) were from Vietnam (mostly ethnic Chinese), while at least 50,000 were from North Korea. An unknown number – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of Kachin refugees from Burma were in China's Yunnan Province.

China is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention but has no domestic law on refugee protection. The government generally allows the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to conduct refugee status determinations for the relatively few asylum seekers who approach UNHCR's office in the capital of Beijing. China considers the residence of UNHCR-approved refugees to be temporary and does not permit them to work.

Approximately 50 UNHCR-approved refugees – from countries such as Somalia, Burundi, and Iraq – resided in urban areas of mainland China at year's end. No asylum seekers with cases pending before UNHCR were in mainland China, although some 400 persons with pending claims were in Hong Kong. UNHCR reported an increase in asylum seekers to Hong Kong in recent months.

Refugees from Vietnam

An estimated 294,000 refugees from Vietnam – the great majority of them ethnic Chinese – remained in China. They resided in the six southern provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong, Yunnan, Hainan, Fujian, and Jiangxi. Most arrived in 1979, at the time of the China-Vietnam border war. UNHCR recognized all those who arrived before 1989 as prima facie refugees. According to UNHCR, China has allowed the refugees most of the same rights as nationals, including access to employment, education, housing, and health care. However, China still has not granted the refugees citizenship, and Chinese officials occasionally discussed repatriating some. UNHCR still considered all 294,000 to be refugees. Although the agency regarded most of the refugees as self-sufficient, UNHCR continued to provide limited assistance – in the form of micro-credits – to about ten percent, who fell below the provincial poverty line.

In 2000, Hong Kong closed the last remaining camp for Vietnamese refugees and approved permanent integration for the approximately 1,000 Vietnamese (both ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese) who UNHCR still considered to be refugees, as well as for a few hundred non-refugees. After applying for Hong Kong identification cards, the Vietnamese are eligible for full citizenship after seven years. In 2001, 54 Vietnamese applied for and received the cards. UNHCR and the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) consider their status as non permanent, and therefore still consider them to be refugees, for the seven-year period.

North Koreans

Defecting from North Korea is a capital offense. North Korean officials reportedly beat many returnees, place them in labor camps or orphanages, or execute them. Because the right to leave one's country is an internationally guaranteed human right, and because of the likelihood that returnees will be persecuted for having left North Korea without permission, USCR considers upwards of 50,000 North Koreans in China – based on the estimate of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) with knowledge of the region – to be refugees.

The actual number of North Koreans in China in 2001 remained unknown. Estimates ranged from 10,000 to 500,000, though most NGOs gave 300,000 as the upper estimate. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimated 200,000.

Although a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, China has had a treaty with North Korea since 1986 in which China pledges to return "defectors." China's Jilin Province also has a law that requires the return of North Koreans who enter illegally. For several years, China informally tolerated the presence of North Koreans, and even provided them assistance. The situation changed in 1999, when China began returning large numbers of North Koreans, claiming they were not refugees but "food migrants." The practice accelerated in 2000 and again in the spring of 2001, when China launched its "Strike Hard" campaign – which one news report called China's "fiercest campaign in years" against North Korean refugees.

Chinese security authorities posing as census takers went house to house, looking for "illegal" North Koreans. Other steps included random questioning on street corners, arrests of local aid workers, inspections of churches and factories, and searches in remote villages and farms. In addition, while the search for North Koreans was previously limited to China's three northeastern provinces, authorities in 2001 initiated road checks throughout the country. China imposed fines on citizens who harbored North Koreans, and financially rewarded those who turned them in.

According to NGOs working in the border area, China arrested some 6,000 North Koreans in June and July alone. MSF sought permission from local Chinese authorities to aid the North Korean refugees, but authorities said the assistance was not needed because the number of North Koreans refugees was small.

The Chinese government has not allowed UNHCR any involvement with the North Koreans since 1999, when UNHCR conducted a mission to the border and determined that some North Koreans were refugees. China reprimanded UNHCR for this action and has since denied them permission to travel to the border area.

According to London's Daily Telegraph, foreign NGOs have established an "underground railroad" of guides and safe houses to help move North Koreans from China to South Korea through countries such as Burma, Vietnam, Thailand and, more recently, Mongolia. NGOs and individuals have also established secret feeding stations and orphanages for the North Koreans, and have tried to help them find work.

China forcibly repatriated an unknown number – possibly thousands – of North Koreans during the year. One aid worker said that following the initiation of the "Strike Hard" campaign, forced returns from one particular border town increased from 20 a week to 50 every two days. Upon apprehending the North Koreans, Chinese authorities place them in jail before handing them over to North Korean border guards. In some cases, Chinese police allow North Korean authorities to enter China and seize refugees.

In June, in an incident that received international attention, seven members of a North Korean family, the Jungs, entered the UNHCR office in Beijing and asked for sanctuary. Although this was the first time that North Koreans had come to UNHCR's Beijing office to request asylum, a UNHCR spokesperson said the family represented "the tip of an iceberg." The family included a teenage artist whose drawings of life in North Korea – published in South Korea – could "subject the family to punishment" if returned, UNHCR officials said.

After three days of tense negotiations, the Chinese government permitted the Jungs to fly to South Korea by way of Singapore and the Philippines.

The Jung case prompted the Washington Post to editorialize that UNHCR "has done little to help one of the world's biggest communities of refugees" and that the United States should begin "a serious campaign to give the UNHCR access to the thousands of families left behind."

Refugees from Tibet

The Chinese government continued its human rights abuses in Tibet in 2001, including crackdowns on religious activity and harsh treatment of political dissidents. The government's actions led 1,381 Tibetans to flee into Nepal in 2001. UNHCR helped the refugees to continue on to India, where a majority of Tibetan refugees live. Viewing Chinese occupation of Tibet as a "liberation," the Chinese government denies that Tibetans flee as refugees, and in 2001 continued its practice of settling ethnic Chinese in Tibet.

Asylum Seekers from China

In recent years, an unknown number of Chinese asylum seekers, mostly from coastal Fujian Province, have fled by boat to various countries, including Canada, Australia, Japan, and the United States. Many of the asylum seekers have paid organized smugglers to transport them, often aboard unseaworthy boats. Although many receiving countries generally view them as economic migrants, most of the asylum seekers have claimed persecution based on "coercive population control" (China's one-child policy) or, more recently, on membership in the banned Falun Gong spiritual group.

During fiscal year 2001, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) granted asylum to 4,092 Chinese (cases, not individuals) and denied or referred to immigration judges 2,307 cases, an approval rate of 64 percent.

U.S. immigration judges granted asylum in 2,624 Chinese cases and denied 3,339, an approval rate of 43.5 percent.

During the year, the Chinese government's increased crackdown on Uighurs – Muslims from the western province of Xingiang – led an unknown number of Uighurs to flee to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, both of which reportedly returned some of the refugees to China. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, China publicly labeled the Uighur independence movement a terrorist threat.


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