On World Refugee Day, China’s role in the growing humanitarian crisis is called into question

Today’s World Refugee Day is marked by a record 65.6 million refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced people across the world—and China is under increasing pressure to help.

The refugee crisis is scarcely out of the headlines these days, and there are calls from the global community for China to become what the US calls a “responsible stakeholder” in the current world order. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, recently called for China to “help resolve refugee crises.”

Syrian refugees make up 5.5 million of the total figure; a further 6.3 million are internally displaced. China has only taken in nine Syrian refugees, and 26 asylum seekers. Meanwhile it is several of the world’s poorest countries bearing the brunt of the current , with Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon hosting the highest numbers. Figures suggest that even if China were to host 4.7 million Syrian refugees, it would only equate to 3.5 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants.

Belt & Road

Some have suggested China’s Belt and Road initiative could play a significant role in the crisis by promoting trade, financial integration and connectivity, and encouraging friendly, peaceful relations among countries. China envisions helping to stabilize areas of conflict without the need for military intervention by addressing root causes, such as unemployment and poverty.

Others warn that China’s international lending and infrastructure spree comes with huge risks, high interest rates and few caveats. “Beijing cares little for niceties such as human rights, environmental protection, and anti-corruption,” noted Foreign Policy, which suggested Venezuela’s current crisis might be replicated across the Belt & Road. “Venezuela collapsed thanks to a malevolent dictatorship pushing disastrous economic policies aided by a benefactor willing to extend near bottomless credit. This same toxic mix is present throughout many of the countries receiving large amounts of Chinese lending under the BRI.”


Although China is visibly neglecting the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, authorities are admirably providing assistance to those fleeing violence in nearby Myanmar. Conflict in the Kokang region of Myanmar has led to approximately 20,000 arriving across the border in the mountainous town of Nansan, in southwestern Yunnan province. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said those looking to “temporarily avoid the war” would receive humanitarian assistance, but Chinese authorities are more concerned with restoring peace in the border region.

North Korea

Despite welcoming Myanmar refugees across the border, the plot takes a turn when the North Korean refugee crisis is added to the mix. The refugee crisis arguably began in the 1990s during a severe famine which killed approximately three million people. Since then, China has been a widely used escape route for those fleeing North Korea, but China recognizes North Koreans as “illegal economic migrants” and—if found—send them back over the border. Crossing the border is risky—and expensive—with brokers charging extortionate prices for the journey over.

Under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and the 1984 Convention against Torture, China has an obligation to protect refugees, but Human Rights Watch recently called for eight North Korean refugees currently detained in China to be provided with asylum or allowed to move onto a third country. It is well know that those returning to North Korea will be subjected to violence, forced labor or incarceration. If North Korean refugees choose to illegally reside in China, they are provided with no rights and risk being repatriated if they remain in China. Estimates suggest up to 200,000 North Korean refugees are currently residing in China. Since the children of North Korean defectors are not recognized as either Chinese or North Korean, and many forced to live under the radar, exact figures are difficult to calculate.

Campaigners, including Human Rights Watch, have been appealing to the international community to help North Korean defectors in China. Precedent must be set; China’s refusal to protect North Korean refugees raises questions about the country’s ability to protect refugees fleeing from further afield.


For now, China has pledged to spend $2 billion since the 2015 UN Summit and assist developing countries with major debt forgiveness, providing $29.1 million to help refugees in the Syrian crisis. Indeed, despite contributing $12.5 million to aid programs in 2017 so far, China has been accused of simply “throwing money” at the problem and avoiding the physical necessity of sheltering refugees.

China has always been cautious of its over-population problem and vigorously defends its own “non-interference” ideology on foreign policy – furthermore, there is little public support for refugee resettlement, with many Chinese believing that, as a developing country, charity should begin at home. Finally, the country lacks any bureaucracy to process a large influx of refugees; only in 2012 did China revise the law to permit identity certificates to refugees, and Chinese law does not provide any financial assistance to refugees.


Cover image from SCMP


Imogen Braddick is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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