World Refugee Survey 2009: China
Around 11,000 North Korean refugees remained in hiding in near the border with their home country. The deprivation that some fled was politically motivated, as North Korea withheld food and other goods from as much as a quarter of the population that it deemed hostile. North Korea also punished returned defectors with prison, forced labor, torture, and possibly execution had they met with non-Chinese foreigners or Christians outside the country. According to a March report from Human Rights Watch, punishments became more severe since late 2004, with prison sentences of one to five years for all defectors, including first-time offenders. As the North Korean Government’s motives for such severe punishment appeared to be political, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants considered North Koreans in China prima facie to be refugees. China, however, considered them illegal economic migrants.
China also hosted more than 319,000 refugees from Vietnam, mostly ethnic Chinese, who fled Vietnam during and after the Sino-Vietnamese War in the early 1980s, mostly settling in the southern provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong, Yunnan, Hainan, Fujian, and Jiangxi.
2008 Events Summary
China continued to deport North Koreans back to their home country. China returned five North Korean women it caught trying to reach Thailand in April. China did, however, allow a group of five North Koreans to leave for the Czech Republic in July. It also continued to arrest and detain those it caught assisting North Koreans. North Korean agents reportedly entered the country to catch and return refugees.
In a pre-Olympic sweep, China also deported at least nine refugees and six asylum seekers registered with UNHCR to their home countries. Nine of the deportees were Pakistani, six Iraqi. One of the Pakistani deportees was an unaccompanied 17-year-old boy.
Six asylum seekers lost a challenge to their deportation when a Hong Kong court ruled in February that the city was not bound by the principle of nonrefoulement. Hong Kong also refused to consider mainland Chinese for asylum, and returned 1,350 to the mainland during the year.
Despite a July court ruling that their detention was unlawful for lack of a clear policy, Hong Kong authorities announced they would continue to detain 400 asylum seekers whom they planned to deport. News reports suggested they quietly released many of the prisoners, however.
A United Nations envoy reported in October that security on the border had reduced the number of North Koreans crossing into China.
In November, amidst concerns about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, China sent troops to the North Korean border to prevent any potential refugees from crossing.
Law and Policy
China allows passage to South Korea via a third country only to those Korean refugees who gain public attention and the protection of a foreign embassy or consulate and only after five to six months of delay. China also denies UNHCR and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) access to its northeastern border with North Korea.
China is party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Although the Constitution allows it to grant asylum to those who sought it “for political reasons,” China does not have a procedure for doing so. China permits a small number of asylum seekers of other nationalities to remain, mostly in Beijing, while UNHCR determins their status and sought to resettle them.
Hong Kong lacks a clear asylum policy and China does not consider that its obligations under the Convention and Protocol extended to it. In February 2008, a Hong Kong court ruled that the city is not bound by the principle of nonrefoulement because it does not rise to the level of a peremptory international norm. A December 2008 ruling, however, declared that Hong Kong was improperly reviewing the claims of asylum seekers under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The court so ruled because Hong Kong denied claimants legal representation at any stage and access to legal aid, because the person examining claims did not make the final decision, and because the people hearing claims and appeals were not sufficiently trained in assessing torture claims. Hong Kong’s Director of Immigration maintained the power to stay deportations on compassionate grounds.
Detention/Access to Courts
China detains and deports North Koreans who come to its official attention, but has not launched systematic crackdowns in recent years. China continued to enhance the security on its border with North Korea, installing electronic sensors and offering rewards of roughly $300 for those who turned in North Koreans.
China occasionally arrests asylum seekers in Beijing for illegal stay or if they lose their passports, but generally releases them if UNHCR finds they are refugees. China’s Public Security Bureau holds all detained refugees and asylum seekers, and the detention centers are not subject to any independent monitoring. Refugees and asylum seekers cannot challenge their detention before any court.
Some reports indicate that local governments near the North Korean border quietly issue identification cards to North Korean brides and the children of Chinese men. Others pay bribes of $100 to $400 to obtain registration on the Chinese household registry for their children.
Refugees under UNHCR’s protection, along with North Koreans, have no official status under Chinese law, and cannot use the courts to pursue their rights unless they hold a visa or residence permit.
Vietnamese refugees enjoy most of the rights of Chinese nationals. The provincial governments where they live issue identification cards to all those over the age of 16, but not refugees or asylum seekers from other countries. Local authorities generally recognize the certificates that UNHCR issues to mandate refugees, but some officials objects to the letters it grants to asylum seekers and do not always accept them.
North Koreans have to use forged identification cards to move within the country. These range in price from $10 for easily spotted forgeries, to more sophisticated cards costing $1,260 or more that include Chinese household registration numbers.
Some Chinese citizens of Korean ethnicity buy North Korean identification cards from refugees for 1,000 to 1,500 yuan (about $140 to $210), hoping to use them to gain asylum in the West.
Freedom of Movement and Residence
Vietnamese refugees have freedom of movement within the country but North Koreans do not. Police outside the Beijing area are not familiar with the certificates that UNHCR issues to refugees, and most do not travel outside the capital for fear of arrest by local police. Authorities also limit the movement of refugees without valid travel documents.
Some North Koreans use networks of safehouses and friendly groups to make their way through China to Mongolia, Russia, or southeast Asia. China built a barbed wire fence along the Tumen River, which marks the border with North Korea, and installed heat and motion sensors in the desert along its border with Mongolia. Thai officials reportedly indicated they would tip off the Chinese Government about the location of North Koreans preparing to cross from China into Thailand. Roughly 700 per year reach Mongolia, according to that country’s former health minister.
China requires some asylum seekers and refugees in Beijing, particularly those without proper identification, to stay in two designated hotels. Most live in private residences with UNHCR assistance. In some cases, Chinese authorities object if they attempted to change residences too often.
Some village leaders quietly and informally encourage the presence and registration of North Korean women, because it helps ease the shortage of women caused by China’s one-child policy and rural-to-urban migration. Authorities generally make more effort to crack down on North Koreans in urban centers than in rural areas.
A study conducted in 2004 found that 76 percent of North Koreans in China were living with Chinese citizens of Korean descent. At 5 percent each, missionaries’ homes and mountain hideouts were the next most common places of residence.
China does not issue travel documents to refugees, and those whom UNHCR resettled to other countries relied on travel documents from their home countries or their new hosts.
Right to Earn a Livelihood
China allows Vietnamese refugees to work freely. Other refugees need a passport with a valid visa or residence permit to apply for a work permit. North Korean refugees, who generally left their country illegally, are not able to work.
The inability to work legally forces many North Korean women in China to depend on relationships with Chinese men to survive, which they form either directly or through brokers or traffickers. Brokers typically sell North Korean women to Chinese men for between $700 and $1,000. Some enter knowing that traffickers would pair them with a Chinese husband but others do not. Some North Korean women find work as domestic servants and a few North Korean men find work as day laborers. The 2004 study found that only 22 percent of North Koreans in China were working. Of those who did work, only 13 percent reported receiving a fair wage, and 9 percent received none at all.
The 1996 Provisions on Administration of Employment of Foreigners in China prohibit citizens and businesses from employing foreigners, with no exception for refugees, but allow special units from the Government to apply to the Ministry of Labor for work permits on behalf of foreigners. The fine for an employer sheltering illegal workers is $4,110. Permits are available only for special jobs for which no domestic workers are available and require certificates of qualification, labor contracts, and verifications of the demand in the labor market. Foreign workers also have to possess employment visas or foreign resident certificates. Any foreigner wishing to change employers has to go through the process again. This law, however, does not apply in Hong Kong or Macao.
China’s Constitution limits the rights to “own lawfully earned income, savings, houses and other lawful property” to citizens.
Public Relief and Education
The children of Chinese men and North Korean women can attend school through middle school and beyond if their family secures legal documentation. NGOs and missionaries provide some aid to North Koreans in the border areas.
China grants Vietnamese refugees public assistance and education on par with nationals but denies these services to refugees and asylum seekers of other nationalities. UNHCR provides assistance to refugees under its protection, including funding for housing, food, and medical assistance.
In Hong Kong, children of refugees and asylum seekers cannot attend schools.
Back to World Refugee Survey: 2009 >>