Legal status for seekers of asylum

Updated: 2012-07-02 00:27

By Zhao Yinan (China Daily)

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A new law will give refugees who come to China the right to stay in the country.

The National People's Congress Standing Committee approved an Exit and Entry Administration Law on Saturday will allow refugees to stay in China after obtaining an ID card from public security authorities. Asylum seekers will also be allowed to use a temporary ID card to stay in the country while their refugee status is under examination.

The new law combines two existing laws that pertain to exiting and entering the country and to foreigners. The old laws will expire when the new one takes effect on July 1, 2013.

China is now a party to two international refugee pacts — the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. Even so, its Legislation Law states that international protocols will only be in force if they are written into domestic laws.

The new law will fill a legal vacuum and is expected to give rise to more administrative and legislative provisions meant to protect the rights and safety of refugees in China, said Liu Guofu, an immigration law expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

Asylum seekers are often treated as illegal foreign residents in China. Because they often flee their home countries in haste, their documents are incomplete and China has no legislative means of separating the management of refugees from regular foreign visitors, Liu said.

Liu said refugee protection entails having government agencies cooperate with one another and even with international organizations, making it difficult.

Although China has no offices formally charged with taking care of refugees, the Ministry of Public Security is generally responsible for matters pertaining to status recognition, and repatriation and civil affairs authorities should attend to refugee resettlement, Liu said.

Insiders who spoke to China Daily on condition of anonymity said the Ministry of Civil Affairs has set up a team under the department of international cooperation to deal with the increasing number of people coming to the country to seek asylum. The office is working on a draft regulation that will take parts of the international conventions that China has agreed to and write them into domestic laws.

In the absence of national legislation on refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' Beijing office has found itself responsible for examining the status of people who seek asylum in China.

The office was established in 1980 and has helped resettle about 300,000 refugees who fled to China following the Sino-Vietnamese border conflicts in late 1970s. These refugees and their children, referred to as "Indochinese refugees", have been living in the country ever since and are considered to be assimilated into Chinese society.

Refugees recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, can stay in China temporarily until they find a long-term solution to their quandary, such as returning voluntarily to their country of origin when it is safe to do so or being resettled to a third country with the organization's help.

Giuseppe de Vincentiis, UNHCR's regional representative for China and Mongolia, said his office receives from 100 to 150 applications from asylum seekers every year, mostly coming from Somalia, Iraq and Pakistan.

"There has been a noticeably mobile Somali population around the globe in recent years, a result of ongoing domestic wars," he said. "And the case is the same in China."

He said large numbers of Iraqis are seeking asylum for similar reasons.

De Vincentiis said Beijing, Hubei and Guangdong provinces have received the largest number of refugees.

De Vincentiis said he welcomes the Chinese authorities' work to regularize the status of refugees.

Having the designation of illegal foreign resident bars a person from employment or from receiving social welfare, he said.

"I hope the latest stipulation will help make refugees' lives in China easier, allowing them to take language and vocational training during their stay," he said. "Many refugees are talented or are specialists in certain fields, and they can be of great use to China if they are treated fairly."

The new Exit and Entry Administration Law will include several measures meant both to attract talented foreigners to China and to curb illegal entries and employment.

China has welcomed a rocketing number of foreign visitors since opening up its borders in the late 1970s. From January to September 2011, 260 million arrivals and departures took place in the country, according to the Ministry of Public Security and foreign affairs. The figure for 1980 was 12.1 million.

Beijing, whose population of foreigners with residence permits only lags behind Shanghai's, was home to nearly 120,000 foreigners at the end of 2011, according the Ministry of Public Security.

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