Migrant Futures: Opinion

Anywhere but here? China’s response to refugee protection during COVID-19

The pandemic is having a profound impact on refugee protection globally. But is China doing enough?

Lili Song
9 March 2021, 8.05am
Chinese tourists use a telescope to look at North Korea, across the Tumen river
wei cao / Alamy Stock Photo
Toronto University CERC Migration logo with extra white space.png

With COVID-19 disrupting travel, shutting borders, and redefining what is essential work, Pandemic Borders explores what international migration will look like after the pandemic, in this series titled #MigrantFutures

While China has made significant progress in terms of its refugee policy, it has failed to offer protection and assistance to North Korean refugees looking for safety.

China has long been perceived as a refugee-producing country. But with its rise as a global power, it is also emerging as a transit and destination country for refugees. In recent years, the country has demonstrated a growing interest in playing a more significant role in global refugee governance.

Last October, at the 71st session of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) executive committee, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva, ambassador Chen Xu, urged the international community to proactively respond to the challenges presented to refugees by COVID-19.

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Xu recognized that the pandemic had made the situation more difficult for refugees around the world and that as a vulnerable group, they should receive special assistance during the pandemic.

Soon after, in November, the China International Development Cooperation Agency and the UNHCR signed an agreement on using China’s South-South Cooperation Assistance Fund (SSCAF) to help refugees and other vulnerable groups in Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan “cope with COVID-19 and alleviate the humanitarian crisis caused by the pandemic”.

In January 2021, the two parties signed a similar agreement on also using SSCAF to provide emergency supplies to Afghanistan’s returned refugees and displaced people. China also donated personal protective equipment to assist Palestinian refugees through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in August 2020.

If caught by Chinese authorities, North Korean escapees face deportation and severe punishment for illegally leaving their home country

Although China’s financial and material contribution to international refugee assistance projects is helpful, its treatment of refugees at home seems a far cry from the words of ambassador Xu.

Despite being a party to Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol since 1982, China has not established a national mechanism for determining who qualifies as a refugee, and instead leaves this to UNHCR’s Beijing Office.

Furthermore, the Chinese government has provided little financial support to refugees in the past few decades. This remains unchanged even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In September 2020, UNHCR noted that it was the sole provider of assistance to refugees in China and provided them additional cash assistance to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. In fact, refugees identified by UNHCR in China have no right to work and have to rely on the limited UNHCR financial support intended to cover essential food, shelter and health needs.

What’s more, the Chinese government has not allowed UNHCR to access its border with North Korea, where there are large numbers of North Korean escapees that the Chinese government claims are illegal economic migrants, but who are considered refugees by international organizations and scholars.

If caught by Chinese authorities, North Korean escapees normally face deportation to North Korea, where they could face severe punishment for illegally leaving the country. So the escapees try to avoid Chinese authorities, and many travel by land through China to a third country where they can find protection.

Despite the closure of the Chinese-North Korean border and difficulties caused by stricter travel restrictions within China since the outbreak of COVID-19, North Korean escapees continue to transit through the large country.

There is no sign of change in China’s policy towards North Korean escapees. In October 2020, two UN special rapporteurs and the UN high commissioner for human rights’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention urged China to uphold the principle of non-refoulement (a guarantee that no one should be returned to a country where they would face harm) and avoid repatriating five North Korean escapees. China has not responded to the pleas.

Numerous lessons from around the world show us that, during a pandemic, no one will be safe until everyone is safe. China’s Position Paper on the 75th anniversary of the UN in September 2020 rightly noted that countries should do their part for refugees and pledged that it will continue to shoulder its responsibilities and make its contribution as a major country . Isn’t it high time for China to do more for the refugees in its own territory?

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