Contributed by Olivier Rukundo, a mandate refugee in China.
The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress enacted a new Exit-Entry Administration Law on 30 July 2012. For the first time, it has added to domestic law provisions regarding the treatment and rights of refugees. What is the practical significance of this enactment?
Article 45. An alien who applies for status as a refugee may stay in China with a temporary identity certificate issued by a public security organ during the screening of his or her application. An alien who is determined to be a refugee may stay and reside in China with a refugee identity certificate issued by a public security organ.
This provision is symbolically important. For the first time, China’s domestic law reflects its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees to which China is party. Under the new provision, persons may apply for refugee status and remain in the country while being screened.
At times in the past, China has refused to allow the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and international aid organisations access to persons seeking refuge in China. UNHCR repeated this charge as recently as last week in connection with Kachin asylum seekers from Myanmar (Burma) seeking refuge in China. Some 10,000 Burmese are in China’s Yunnan Province in refugee camps or other settlements. China Daily reports that the Ministries of Public Security and Civil Affairs may play a role in screening and providing services to asylum seekers in camps. But Human Rights Watch reports that people have been refouled by the Chinese government.
China is one of the few countries in Asia to have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. Parties to the Convention have an obligation to abide by the principle of non-refoulement, which means that no contracting state shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened. In practice, a country that has signed the treaty is supposed to make individual determinations regarding whether a person unwilling to return to his or her country is a genuine refugee and is supposed to give the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to the asylum-seekers.
A refugee is legally defined in the Refugee Convention as a person who has fled his or her country because of actual persecution or ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted’ is unwilling to return to his or her country. The actual or threatened persecution must be on the basis of one of the enumerated grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
China’s government sees some refugees, such as those from North Korea, as a potential threat to regional stability. And Beijing fears that granting refugee status to citizens of friendly neighbouring governments would be considered an insult to those governments. Therefore, as a practical matter, it remains to be seen how China will implement these new provisions and whether refugees will receive the protection they are entitled to.
‘China’s New Exit-Entry Law: Treatment of Refugees’ (4 July 2012), Chodorow, Gary, LawAndBorder.com