By  Alexander Casella

GENEVA–The recent forceful repatriation to China by the Thai authorities of two Chinese dissidents, Dong Guangping and Jiang Yefei has highlighted an issue, which most governments prefer not to down play, namely refugees from, China.

Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping were arrested on Oct 28 following a request from China
Jiang Yefei  (r) and Dong Guangping were arrested on Oct 28 following a request from China

According to the 1951 Refuge Convention a refugee is a person who had to flee his country in order to escape either war or persecution for political, religious or ethnic reasons. The key word here is “persecution”, which implies that a refugee-producing country is also one that persecutes some of its citizens. It is a contention that some governments, like China’s, violently dispute while it leaves others, like Vietnam’s totally indifferent.

The Refugee Convention is a bare-bone document, which does not obligate its signatories to grant asylum to a refugee. All it does, in addition to defining a refugee, is to proscribe his return to a country where he would be persecuted. In order to implement the principals set forth by the Convention, governments have adopted specific national legislations, which enable them to adjudicate claims to refugee status. Thus a person who has a claim to refugee status is defined as an “asylum seeker” and it is only after he has undergone a refugee status procedure that his claim will, or will not be recognized. No two states have the same refugee determination procedure and the result is that the same asylum seeker could well be recognized as a refugee by one country and not by another.

The Convention was essentially a western instrument, conceived at the height of the Cold War and the implementation of the various asylum procedures, which it spawned, reflected this reality. Thus, when thousands of Czechs and Hungarians fled to Western Europe during the 1956 and 1968 crisis it would never have occurred to a western European government to forcefully repatriate any of them and they were all granted blanket refugee status without having to undergo a refugee determination procedure.

With refugees essentially fleeing from East to West, the Conventions, over the years fulfilled its role in providing a humanitarian veneer to what was essentially a political process; a process facilitated by the fact that, before the revolution in communications refugees generally stayed within their continent of origin with Africans seeking refuge in Africa and Afghans in Asia.

The Vietnamese boat people crisis marked the end of this process. For the first time, there was no regional solution to a regional refugee problem and the granting of asylum became tantamount to a migration from a third world country to a developed economy.

This trend towards the globalization of asylum movement was amplified by he end of the Cold War, which brought about the end the East/West asylum movement for which the western countries had designed their refugee determination procedures. Thus, in the space of a few years industrialized democracies had to confront a new asylum movement which turned out to be not so much East to West but South to North.

With some 158 signatories, the Refugee Conventions, on paper, are legal instruments of consequence. In practice, the core adherents remain the industrialized democracies. Granted, signatories include practically all African and Latin American states but most have done so only for cosmetic purposes and have neither the means nor the institutions to ensure their implementation. As for Asia, the only signatories are Japan, whose asylum procedure is so restrictive that they will deter most refugees from seeking refuge in the country, the Philippines and Cambodia both of which lack the administrative structure to give it any substance and last but not least China.

Were it only for geographical reasons, substantial population movements in China as a result of political upheavals were essential internal and concerned Chinese; or, when external, minorities such as the Tibetans. The reverse was also true as what occurred in 1979 when 251,855 refugees from Vietnam sought refuge in China. Of that number 229,702 were of Chinese origin.

While the Communists had initially the same reservations as the Soviets regarding adhesion to the Refugee Conventions, by the late 1970’s their position had evolved. This was no doubt helped by the fact that the High Commissioner at the time, a former Danish Prime Minister Poul Hartling had been the first Prime Minister of a NATO country to visit China and meet with Mao. Thus by October 1979 UNHCR started a program in China to assist in the resettlement of the refugees from Vietnam.

It was Beijing’s first operational involvement with the UN system and two yeas later; in 1981 China adhered to the Refugee Conventions. The gesture was essentially symbolic. Except for the group that came from Vietnam asylum requests in China were practically non-existent and the same applied to Chinese requesting asylum abroad, with the exception of Hong Kong.

For decades Hong Kong was the only location, which a Chinese could realistically reach to seek asylum. Until 1974 all Chinese who reached Hong Kong were permitted to stay in the Colony. With the influx showing no sign of diminishing and mindful of the geographical limitations of the Colony, the British government in 1974 set up the “touch base” policy; all newcomers who reached the urban areas could stay while those intercepted in the border areas would be sent back to the Mainland. In 1980, the “touch base” policy was repealed and an agreement was reached with Beijing by which all illegal arrivals would be repatriated. To circumvent the Refugee Conventions, which would have required that those sent back be first screened for refugee status, the British decreed that the Conventions did not apply to the Colony of Hong Kong.

Neither the UN Refugee Agency, nor advocacy group’s nor foreign Governments confronted the British Government over what was a dubious interpretation of the applicability of the Refugee Conventions, nor, at least on paper, Hong Kong ceased to be a haven for dissidents from Mainland China. Reality proved somewhat different.

Over the years, whenever a Chinese who could realistically claim that he was at risk in China for being a political dissident arrived in Hong Kong, the British authorities would discreetly move him to a foreign country. That the Chinese authorities were aware of this, there is no doubt. However, as long as it was done discreetly, and created no public embarrassment to Beijing, they closed their eyes. The same occurred when, especially after the Tien An Men demonstrations, a Chinese dissident would appear in Vietnam. While the last thing Hanoi wanted was to exacerbate its relations with Beijing by appearing to be a conduit for the exodus of dissidents, UNHCR would be permitted to discreetly resettle the occasional case.

The retrocession of Hong Kong to China, as well as the quantum leap in the number of Chinese travelling abroad substantially changed the potential for Chinese to seek refugee status outside their country.

In 2012 some 83 million Chinese traveled abroad as tourists. Of this number, some 24,000, that is 0.03 % applied for asylum, claiming they were entitled to refugee status based on a well founded fear of persecution if returned to China. Statistically, the number is insignificant.

Where they applied for asylum is less so, and where they were recognized as refugees even more so.

Out the total number of Chinese asylum applications made worldwide, 15,900 were made in the US where the number of Chinese tourists amounted to some 1.4 million. The same number of Chinese tourists visited France that year but the number of asylum applications stood at 2,224.

The motivation for requesting asylum should be the need to flee from persecution and not a wish to emigrate. However, as the figures indicate the two are increasingly linked. Thus the number of Chinese requesting asylum in economically less desirable countries are remarkably low: 280 in Germany, 32 in Ireland, 26 in Italy, 32 in Japan and 6 in Thailand.

Requesting asylum is one thing. Having one’s request adjudicated positively is another. Overall recognition rates of asylum seekers applying to be recognized as refugees stand at some 60% in the US, 50 % in Canada, 28 % in Germany and 25 % in France. However if the applicant is a Chinese his chances of success are 92% in the US, 58% in Canada, 28% in Germany, 25% in France and 1% in Ireland. And while some of the variation are no doubt due to the savvy of those government officials who administer their current Refugee Determination Procedures and their ability to detect frauds, the overall conclusion is obvious: countries having uneasy relations with China, with the US in the lead, will have a greater tendency to grant Chinese asylum seekers refugee status.

This politicization of asylum, which is more the rule than the exception is viewed by Beijing as the unavoidable, albeit minor, side effect of the number of tourists that the country exports every year.  By and large China has chosen to ignore the phenomenon except when it chooses to make a point. The reaction can be vehement.

In 2009 a group of 20 Uyghurs arrived in Phnom Penh claiming Refugee Status. While Cambodia had adhered to the Conventions it had not adjudicated their claims and the matter was looked into UNHCR who registered their cases. Adjudicating the claims proved however difficult. The Uyghurs claimed not to speak Chinese and an interpreter had to be brought in from Turkey. As the matter dragged on and the Uyghurs proving increasingly reluctant to provide information on themselves the World Uyghur Congress, a shady organization operating from Munich partly with US funds made the matter public. This was two days before the Chinese Vice Prime Minister was due to visit Phnom Penh. The reaction was immediate and December 19 the 20 Uyghurs were on a plane to Beijing.

Uyghur refugees in Thailand
Uyghur refugees in Thailand

As predicted, protests emerged from all sides but to no avail with the end result that not only the return failed to embarrass the Chinese but it also marked the end of Cambodia as an avenue for exfiltrating Uighurs dissidents from China.

The next deportation of Uyghurs occurred in June 2015 from Thailand when a group of some 100 were forcefully sent back to China. The return prompted violent demonstrations outside the Thai consulate in Istanbul and a protest by the Turkish government, which sees itself as the protector of all Uyghurs. Protests included a statement by the newly appointed UNHCR assistant High Commissioner for Refugee, Volker Turk (a Swiss) qualifying the return as a “flagrant violation of international law “ a contention, which raised some eyebrows given that Thailand has not adhered to the Refugee Convention and technically, could not be faulted for the deportation.

Compared to the overall number of Chinese who travel abroad and the proportion for whom it represents an opportunity for seeking asylum Thailand is not, and by far, the main avenue through which Chinese dissidents, or claiming to be so seeking to leave their country. However, the combination of a UNHCR presence which can operate reasonably freely, and permissive immigration policies have led to the creation of an undefined pool of Burmese, North Koreans and Chinese of all ilk with possibly some claim to refugee statue which endures. Ultimately, the Thai have proved accommodating: not only had one of the two Chinese dissidents deported to China in November been in Thailand for eight years but no impediment was raised for their wives to proceed to Canada

With both UNHCR and the Thais seeking to avoid the limelight, the main problem for this undefined group of refugees/asylum seekers/migrants is the advocacy groups.

In a confidential memo, the US Embassy in Bangkok underlined the fact that for the Thai authorities the refugee issues is often “part of the agenda of foreign NGOs.” While these, were it only in order to justify their existence, not to say their fund raising must be seen and heard, publicity has systematically been counterproductive as regards the fate of the individuals concerned. Alternatively, when an issue could be kept out of the limelight and not made into a political bone of contention, both the Thais and the Chinese have shown a substantial proclivity for looking the other way.

Dr Alexander Casella is a Swiss journalist and academic who has been writing on Asian and Middle-Eastern affaires since the mid 1960’. He also served for 20 years with the UN refugee agency where his last post was Director for Asia. He is the author of Breaking the Rules, an account of his years with the UN.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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