Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 11:36 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 11:36 | SYDNEY

China is not ready for refugees

15 September 2009 13:06

Claudia He is a graduate student from Tsinghua University's School of International Relations in Beijing, specialising in security issues in North East Asia. Zhao Lin graduated from Tsinghua University's School of International Relations. He is now an independent researcher on North Korea.

The recent influx of tens of thousands of Burmese refugees caught Chinese border guards by surprise. Local government in China's Yunnan province had to temporarily shelter more than 13,000 Burmese — a difficult mission, especially when China lacks both the experience and regulations to deal with large groups of international refugees.

The last time China faced a similar problem was in 1978, during anti-Chinese persecutions in Vietnam triggered by China's invasion. China assisted the UNHCR in resettling 280,000 ethnic Chinese. Since then, China's borders have been relatively quiet, though refugees never ceased entering China, most coming from famine-stricken North Korea.

It is estimated that there are currently 400,000 Koreans illegally staying inside China. These illegal 'immigrants' (many are second generation) are not granted refugee status. When caught, they are usually be returned to North Korea, facing severe punishment and sometimes death.

As conditions in North Korea worsen, more and more Koreans attempt to sneak into China even at the risk of being shot by hidden DPRK firing posts close to the China-DPRK border. Few flee to South Korea, as the large North Korean Army stationed on the 38th parallel forms a virtually seamless wall stopping anyone from going south. North Korean refugees will be a problem Chinese authorities have to face, no matter whether they come in a deluge, as the case will be if the North Korean regime suddenly collapses, or in groups of three of four as the living situation in North Korea grows more desperate.

But North Korea might not be China's only source of refugees. China borders 16 countries, most of which are economically under-developed, politically unstable and ethnically complicated. Some of these countries' governments face increasing criticisms over their legitimacy, as in the case of Burma and North Korea; some are in a de facto state of war, as in the case of Pakistan; and some are unstable democracies, as in the case of central Asian countries and Thailand.

By contrast, China's continuing economic growth has created a relatively stable environment in which most people have sufficient supply for their daily life and enjoy a relatively high amount of personal security. These comparisons, together with ethnic similarities that usually occur on both sides of an international border, can draw tens of thousands of potential refugees in times of large-scale violence or political persecution. The sudden rush of Burmese refugees is a case in point.

But China is not prepared. China is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the supplemental 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. But China has so far not passed laws dealing with refugees. As a result, in the face of large numbers of refugees, local authorities can only handle each situation on a case-by-case basis, first seeking instructions from Beijing and then coordinating its policy with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other departments and UNHCR.

Local authorities in Yunnan province provided temporary shelter for Burmese refugees in accordance with the National Foreign Affairs Related Emergency Plan, passed after the outbreak of SARS in 2003. According to the Emergency Plan, an incident that involves more than 500 international refugees seeking shelter is to be treated as the highest 'contingency I' and should come under the direct guidance of the State Council. However, this regulation only provides instructions for temporary asylum-seekers. For long term settlement, there is virtually zero written in Chinese official policy documents.

The flood of Burmese refugees is not just a problem, but a warning, calling for systematic examination of China's refugee policy and the drawing up of relevant regulations and plans that would enable China to handle future international humanitarian crises as a responsible regional power.

Photo (of the China-DPRK border) by Flickr user EL Generalissimo, used under a Creative Commons license.