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Summary

China acceded to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol in September 1982.  Despite its accession to the treaties, the domestic law on refugees and asylum is still under development.  Currently, the only relevant legal provisions are article 32 of the Constitution and article 46 of the Exit and Entry Law.  The former provides the general principle on asylum, declaring that the country may grant asylum to foreigners who request it for political reasons.  The latter provides that refugees and asylum seekers in China may obtain ID cards.  A comprehensive refugee law that would cover a wide range of issues relating to refugees and asylum is under consideration.

The UNHCR Beijing Office conducts refugee registration and refugee status determinations in China.  Recognized refugees are permitted to remain temporarily in China while the UNHCR is seeking a durable solution, which most of the time involves resettlement in a third country.  Non-Indochinese refugees are generally treated as aliens who have no right to employment.  They are supported by the UNHCR in terms of food, accommodation, health care, and children’s education.

In addition to article 46 specifically on refugees, refugees and asylum seekers in China are subject to other provisions of the Exit and Entry Law governing foreigners and stateless persons, as well as other relevant Chinese laws.  For example, foreigners who are sixteen years old or older must carry their documentation for examination by public security organs.  Foreigners must also submit their residence permits to the local public security organs wherever they reside.  Hotels must report information concerning foreign guests to the local public security organs.

I. General Background

A. Indochinese Refugees

Although not a traditionally popular destination for refugees and asylum seekers, the People’s Republic of China (PRC or China)[1] was one of the top ten refugee-hosting countries recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) until it was recently replaced by Sudan in mid-2015, largely due to the fact that it accepted and still hosts a large number of Indochinese refugees.[2]   In the late 1970s, China accepted about 260,000 refugees who fled from Vietnam to China.  They were provided refugee status and settled in southern China.  Most of the Indochinese refugees were ethnic Chinese.[3]   According to the UNHCR, the Indochinese refugees and their children are well integrated and receive protection from the Chinese government.[4]

B. Non-Indochinese Refugees

Other than the Indochinese refugees, China attracted few refugees and asylum seekers before the mid-1990s.[5]   In the past two decades, the number of refugees and asylum seekers coming to China has gradually increased, and the country “is becoming a transit and destination country for mixed migration as a result of its geographical and economic importance.”[6] 

According to data provided by the UNHCR, as of June 2015, there were 301,057 refugees, among whom 300,000 were Indochinese refugees, and 564 asylum seekers in China.[7]  Top countries of origin for the non-Indochinese refugees and asylum seekers in China are Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq, and Liberia.[8] 

C. Inflows of Displaced Foreigners from Neighboring Countries

There have also been large-scale inflows of displaced foreigners from neighboring countries, such as North Korea and Burma (Myanmar), whom the Chinese government generally does not recognize as refugees.[9]  Undocumented North Koreans who have crossed into China since the mid-1990s are generally treated as illegal economic migrants.[10]  For the more than 30,000 ethnic Kokangs displaced by armed conflicts in Burma who flooded into China in 2009, the Chinese government promptly opened camps to host them and provided other humanitarian assistance, although the authorities did not refer to them as refugees.[11]  

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II.  Legislation

China acceded to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol in September 1982.[12]  Despite its early accession to these treaties, the domestic law on refugees and asylum is still under development.  Currently, the only legal provisions relevant to refugees are one article in the Constitution providing the general principle on asylum, and one article in the Exit and Entry Law that gives legal status to refugees and asylum seekers.  A comprehensive refugee law that would cover a wider range of refugee issues is under consideration.

A.  Constitution

Article 32 of the Constitution declares that China “may grant asylum to foreigners who request it for political reasons.”[13] 

B.  2012 Exit and Entry Law

In 2012, the PRC Law on the Administration of Exit and Entry (Exit and Entry Law) was promulgated, which replaced two former exit and entry laws governing Chinese citizens and foreigners, respectively.[14]  Effective July 1, 2013, the new Exit and Entry Law contains a provision that, for the first time, allows refugees and asylum seekers to obtain ID cards in China.

According to article 46 of the Exit and Entry Law, foreigners who apply for refugee status in China may, during the screening process, stay in China with temporary identity certificates issued by public security organs.  Foreigners who are recognized as refugees may stay or reside in China with the refugee identity certificates issued by public security organs.[15] 

Article 46 is deemed a positive first step in providing a legal ground for refugees to live in China.  Recognizing that refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to ID cards, the law “lays a foundation for future enhancement of refugees’ rights in China, such as the right to work and the right to education.”[16] 

C.  Draft Refugee Law

Efforts to forge a comprehensive refugee law were reportedly initiated in the 1990s, but so far no draft laws have been released.  In 2012, the draft Regulations on Determination of Status and Administration of Refugees was prepared by Central Government authorities.  If passed, the Regulations would address the definition of refugees, competent authorities in charge of refugee affairs, refugee status determinations, temporary stays and repatriation of refugees, and loss and removal of refugee status.[17] 

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III.  Refugee and Asylum Issues

Although there is only one article in the Exit and Entry Law specifically governing refugees, refugees and asylum seekers in China are subject to other provisions of that Law governing foreigners and stateless persons, as well as other relevant Chinese laws. 

A.  Admission of Refugees and Handling Refugee Claims

Other than article 46 of the Exit and Entry Law, there are no legal provisions specifically regulating the admission of refugees and handling refugee claims under Chinese law.  Nor is there an explicit, competent authority in charge of refugee affairs.  The Ministry of Public Security should be responsible for matters relevant to refugee status recognition and repatriation of refugees and the Ministry of Civil Affairs should attend to refugee resettlement, but no law explicitly authorizes them as the competent authorities.[18]

In practice, refugee registration and refugee status determinations for non-Indochinese refugees are generally conducted by the UNHCR Beijing Office.[19]  According to the Office, it generally has access to asylum seekers who are in Beijing and conducts refugee status determinations.  Recognized refugees are permitted to remain temporarily in China while the UNHCR is seeking a durable solution, which most of the time involves resettlement in a third country.[20] 

B.  Refugees Arriving at the Border

Article 20 of the Exit and Entry Law allows any foreigners who “need to enter China urgently for humanitarian reasons” to apply for visas to enter China before the visa-issuing authorities at their port of entry.  The Law, however, also requires that such foreigners possess supporting materials proving that relevant Chinese authorities have preapproved their application for a visa at a port of entry.[21]

According to a UNHCR officer, refugees in China normally enter the country with valid visas, mostly student visas and some tourist visas, due to strict border control.[22]

C.  Recent Adjustments

China does not appear to have made adjustments or amendments to its refugee law in response to the current refugee crisis.

D.  Refugee Status Determination

The refugee status determination is generally conducted by the UNHCR Beijing Office and Chinese authorities have not substantially engaged themselves in the UNHCR process, according to the UNHCR Beijing Office.  Refugees are recognized under the UNHCR’s mandate.[23] 

E.  Accommodations and Assistance Provided to Refugees

Non-Indochinese refugees in China are generally treated as aliens who have no right to employment.  They are supported by the UNHCR in terms of food, accommodation, health care, and children’s education.[24]

In November 2013, the UNHCR reported that refugee children in five Chinese provinces were allowed to attend public schools at the primary level under the same conditions as local children.[25]

F.  Accepting Refugees for Resettlement

In 1981 and 1982, China provided resettlement opportunities for some 2,500 Laotian and a small number of Cambodian refugees from camps in Thailand.  While most of them voluntarily repatriated, some chose to stay in China.[26] 

G.  Path to Naturalization

In general, as provided by China’s Nationality Law, a foreign national or stateless person who is willing to abide by China’s Constitution and laws may be naturalized as a Chinese citizen upon approval of the application, as long as he or she (1) is a close relative of a Chinese national, (2) has settled in China, or (3) has other legitimate reasons.[27]  In practice, naturalization may be rare other than through marriage or a great contribution to the country.[28]

A foreigner who has entered the country holding a temporary stay visa may be granted a residence permit, according to the Exit and Entry Law, if he or she has a special talent or is an investor as stipulated by the state, or based on humanitarian reasons.[29]  The Law also provides that a foreigner who has made “remarkable contributions to China’s economic and social development” or meets other conditions may be granted permanent residence in China.[30]

H.  Stay and Residence

The Exit and Entry Law requires all foreigners in China aged sixteen or above to carry their passports, other international travel documents, or foreigner stay or residence permits for examination by public security organs.[31] 

Furthermore, foreigners who reside in China must submit their residence permits to the local public security organs of any place they reside for examination.[32]  For those who temporarily stay in hotels, the hotels are required by law to register foreigners’ information and report their information to the local public security organs.  For those who stay or reside in domiciles other than hotels, the foreigners themselves or persons who accommodate them must register the foreigners with the local public security organs within twenty-four hours of their arrival.[33]

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Prepared by Laney Zhang
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
March 2016


[1] This report does not cover the laws in effect in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.

[2] UNHCR Mid-Year Trends 2015 at 6 (2015), http://www.unhcr.org/56701b969.html, archived at https://perma.cc/S4P9-F558.

[3] UNHCR Regional Representation in China, UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org.hk/unhcr/en/about_us/China_ Office.html (last visited Dec. 30, 2015), archived at https://perma.cc/C573-RSBZ.  According to the Chinese government, China accepted a total of 283,000 Indochinese refugees from 1978 onward “in the spirit of humanitarianism.”  China’s Relationship with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva and Other International Organizations in Switzerland (Apr. 16, 2004), http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/ce/cegv/ eng/rqrd/jblc/t85094.htm, archived at https://perma.cc/8TTS-9CFG.

[4] 2015 UNHCR Subregional Operations Profile – East Asia and the Pacific, UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/ pages/49e487cd6.html# (last visited Dec. 30, 2015), archived at https://perma.cc/MB9S-8MKA

[5] Lili Song, Refugee Protection in China: Recent Legal and Policy Developments, Rights in Exile (Sept. 1, 2014), http://rightsinexile.tumblr.com/post/96365498957/refugee-protection-in-china-recent-legal-and, archived at https://perma.cc/9LEE-JJ98

[6] Id.; 2015 UNHCR Subregional Operations Profile, supra note 4.

[7] UNHCR Mid-Year Trends 2015, supra note 2, at 16.

[8] The People’s Republic of China Fact Sheet, UNHCR (Aug. 2015), http://www.unhcr.org/5000187d9.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/E366-DQPK.  

[9] Song, supra note 5.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.; Liu Guofu, Zhongguo Nanmin Fa [Chinese Refugee Law] 214–216 (2015).

[12] UNHCR Regional Representation in China, supra note 3.

[13] Xianfa [Constitution] art. 32, § 2 (1982), 2004 Fagui Huibian 4–28.

[14] Chujing Rujing Guanli Fa [Exit and Entry Administration Law] (Exit and Entry Law) (promulgated by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), June 30, 2012, effective July 1, 2013), 2012 Fagui Huibian 283–301, English translation available at http://cs.mfa.gov.cn/wgrlh/lhqz/lhqzjjs/t1120988.shtml, archived at https://perma.cc/5XS7-BPTE.

[15] Exit and Entry Law art. 46. 

[16] Song, supra note 5.

[17] Liu, supra note 11, at 47; Song, supra note 5.

[18] ZhaoΥinan, Legal Status for Seekers of Asylum, China Daily (July 2, 2012), http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/ 2012-07/02/content_15540683.htm, archived at https://perma.cc/FH74-HUJM.

[19] Liu, supra note 11, at 225; UNHCR Regional Representation in China, supra note 3.

[20] UNHCR Regional Representation in China, supra note 3.  

[21] Exit and Entry Law art. 20.

[22] Fang Shuchen, Waiguo Nanmin Huozai Zhongguo [Foreign Refugees Living in China], 19 Vista Kan Tianxia (July 18, 2014), available at Guancha Zhe (July 27, 2014), http://m.guancha.cn/society/2014_07_27_ 250606.shtml, archived at https://perma.cc/6XLV-Y6UL

[23] UNHCR Regional Representation in China, supra note 3.

[24] Id.

[25] Chinese Schools Offer Primary Education for Urban Refugees, UNHCR (Nov. 22, 2013), http://www.unhcr. org/528f66086.html, archived at https://perma.cc/8SSB-AS67.

[26] UNHCR Regional Representation in China, supra note 3.  

[27] Guoji Fa [Law on Nationality] (promulgated by the NPC, Sept. 10, 1980) art. 7, 1980 Fagui Huibian 3–5, English translation available on National People’s Congress website, at http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/ Law/2007-12/13/content_1384056.htm, archived at https://perma.cc/H4D4-AP5B.

[28] Laney Zhang, Law Library of Congress, Citizenship Pathways and Border Protection: China (Mar. 2013), http://www.loc.gov/law/help/citizenship-pathways/china.php, archived at https://perma.cc/5LQF-7JWU.

[29] Exit and Entry Law art. 31.

[30] Id. art. 47.

[31] Id. art. 38 § 1.

[32] Id. art. 38 § 2.

[33] Id. art. 39.