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China and the International Refugee Regime

Feb 12, 2022
  • Mikaila Smith

    J.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago Law School

The international refugee regime is governed by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and its accompanying 1967 Protocol. China has in fact been a party to both of these instruments since 1982. China’s accession to these international treaties—which define the legal status of ‘refugee’ and delineate states’ obligations towards such persons—occurred in the midst of its response to mass migration after the Vietnam war, with China receiving some 200,000 displaced people from Vietnam.  

In 1979, a mission from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations body tasked with administering and monitoring the implementation of the Refugee Convention and Protocol, visited mainland China. The UNHCR advised Chinese authorities that the international community could provide financial and administrative assistance with the displaced population from Vietnam–if China opted into the international refugee regime. 

Until this point, China had been referring to this population as ‘returning Chinese’ because many of the displaced were of Chinese descent. But the government has now begun calling this population ‘refugees.’ This marked change in attitude is striking, and represents a major adoption of international legal frameworks for China, but perhaps at a time when the consequences of this adoption were still relatively opaque.  

Another striking aspect of this time period is the fact that this population of 200,000 refugees became fully integrated into Chinese society, receiving full benefits and protection. This stands in sharp contrast to China’s contemporary treatment of refugee populations arriving to its borders. Today, the government is extremely reticent to provide any type of substantive assistance or protection to refugee populations within China. 

Because China is a signatory to the 1951 Convention, it is obligated under international law to extend certain protections to anyone who meets the definition of a refugee. However, China has not passed a domestic law that comprehensively incorporates the Refugee Convention into a national framework, so enforcement remains a significant barrier, even though the nation has certain obligations on paper. The existing domestic framework governing refugee law is bare-bones, and delineates no specific process of enforcement or administration for refugee services, protection, or status determinations. 

Technically, the UNHCR has an official mandate and office in Beijing. But despite the Chinese government’s official sanction of the UNHCR’s work, accounts by UNHCR officers depict an organization that is highly restricted by the authorities and constantly responding to shifting political priorities. And in some cases, the UNHCR has been wholesale barred from performing its work. 

One of the most critical obligations of every nation bound by international refugee law is that of non-refoulement: the duty not to return anybody who is a refugee to their country of origin, especially in instances where they will face a high chance of persecution or mistreatment. China frequently disregards its international obligations in its treatment of people who cross the border from North Korea. Since 1998, China has had an explicit policy of repatriation.  

Accurate estimates of the number of North Koreans who have crossed into China or who have crossed and/or subsequently been deported back to North Korea are difficult to obtain, but the UNHCR and the U.S. State Department both estimate the total number of North Koreans in China to be between 30,000 and 50,000 people.  

Chinese officials don’t recognize defecting North Koreans as fulfilling the definition of refugee, and instead “presume that all North Koreans who enter their country are doing so for economic reasons, but [officials do not screen] them to verify whether such is the case.” In 2004, an internal document from China’s Border Patrol Bureau estimated that China had deported some 133,000 people back to North Korea. 

China’s approach to dealing with North Korean defectors has had significant human rights results. Through a series of cooperation agreements with the North Korean government, China has undertaken extensive efforts to secure the border, which has made the journey increasingly perilous and uncertain, with increased risks of abuse along the way or being caught before making it across the border, resulting in harsh treatment. And China’s repatriation policy means that even those who do successfully make it across are forced to live in hiding, constantly fearing forcible return. 

These factors put North Korean migrants in China in an incredibly vulnerable position, and they often live in conditions of extreme poverty. This context helps to explain why the trafficking of North Korean defectors into forced labor and sexually exploitative situations is a pervasive and persistent problem, especially for North Korean women. 

It’s critical that China steadfastly insists North Korean migrants are not refugees (and thus do not fall under the purview of any international law regimes). Clearly, authorities feel pressure to conform with the rhetoric of international law, even if China’s actions flout the substantive obligations of international refugee law. One can imagine a world where China would engage with the Refugee Convention in a different way; for example, if China acknowledged North Koreans as refugees and then tried to conceal its repatriation efforts.  

China’s desire to leverage and influence the language and posturing of international legal frameworks governing the refugee regime has become even more apparent in recent years. Under President Trump, the United States significantly changed its approach towards refugee issues and dramatically cut (reducing its contributions by 80%) its funding of the UNHCR and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the UN agency that supports the five million Palestinian refugees living in the Middle East. President Trump also reduced the number of refugees that would be brought to resettle in the United States, bringing that number down from 110,000 per year to 30,000. 

As the United States relinquished its role in the humanitarian sphere, China saw an opportunity, and took it. In 2018, China began funding a large number of refugee aid projects in Asia and Africa, and publicly pledged to fund refugee assistance projects in specific crises, including Syria and Ethiopia. President Xi made speeches at a forum on the Belt and Road Initiative that indicated these efforts were just the beginning and promised long-term consistent engagement with refugee populations around the globe. 

That same year, China asserted its role as a mediator between Bangladesh and Myanmar to dialogue about the Rohingyan refugee crisis, a follow-up to China’s proposal of a three-phase solution to the crisis in 2017. 

The international refugee regime is a prime target for the Chinese government, because the problems are so great and the solutions so few that foreign governments are ready and willing to accept aid, even if China’s motivations are not entirely altruistic or China’s own treatment of refugees within its borders remains problematic.  

For example, in 2015 German Chancellor Angela Merkel explicitly asked China to assist with the European refugee crisis. It is important to interrogate these dynamics, as it is entirely possible that this new public perception of China as a key player in the international refugee regime will go a long way towards obfuscating the true extent of China’s alleged human rights violations against refugee populations in its own borders.  

Indeed, China has been ranked within the top 20 countries that produce the highest number of refugees every year since 2003. And China’s treatment of specific populations, including North Koreans, is well-documented. Foreign governments interacting with China on refugee issues, then, must be wary of the ways in which the human rights issues at stake are always bound within the specific political conditions and goals of the Chinese government.

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