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08 December 2022 – China

Shihuan Chen, “The Workers in Limbo During Guangzhou’s Covid Outbreak,” The World of Chinese, 19 November 2022,
Shihuan Chen, “The Workers in Limbo During Guangzhou’s Covid Outbreak,” The World of Chinese, 19 November 2022,

Recent protests in China over strict zero-covid policies made headlines across the globe because of their rarity and intensity. However, missed in much of the coverage were public protests of foreign migrant workers, who have been particularly impacted by the zero-covid policy, including being subject to lengthy quarantine and detention measures. According to one report, those facing detention have included “migrant groups [consisting] of undocumented illegal border crossers and people who overstayed six-day tourist visas to work. Some had lost their jobs during recent outbreaks of coronavirus and were trying to return to Myanmar when authorities arrested them.”

Some of the protests that have received attention took place in the Haizhu district in the southeast province of Guangdong, a centre of textile production and of numerous factories. After the number of infections in Guangzhou surged, the government put Guangzhou under curbs mandated under the country’s Covid policy. Neighbourhoods with high infection rates become sealed off from the rest of the area, preventing residents who had been placed in quarantine stations from reaching their homes after their release. Some Chinese migrant workers from surrounding provinces were ordered to return to their provinces; however, the lack of public transport and dire financial situation have reportedly made it impossible for many to return, leaving them stranded on the streets.

The situation facing undocumented migrants who come from outside China is made even more traumatic due to the threat of arrest and detention. Although the government recognises the need for non-citizen labour forces, it has cracked down on the numbers of undocumented migrant workers since the onset of COVID. Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported in May 2022 that as part of this crackdown, more than 1,000 Myanmar migrant workers were being held in incommunicado detention in various detention centres, including in Guangdong.

According to RFA, “More than 100 are at a detention center in the southeastern province of Guangdong, while 1,000 more are in Baoshan, Yunan province, close to the Myanmar border. Aye Moe, 26, had been in detention for seven months at a drug rehabilitation center in Baoshan prior to her release and deportation on May 20 along with 152 other detainees. She told RFA’s Burmese Service there were about 1,000 Myanmar nationals at the center including 14 members of the Rakhine minority, who were still being held on charges of forging Chinese ID cards. The additional crime complicated their deportation.”

Information provided to RFA by former Burmese detainees, which the Global Detention Project has not been able to independently verify, indicates that there are at least five detention centres in Guangzhou. Ye Lwin Tun, a 26-year-old from Myanmar’s northern Shan State, told RFA: “Over 170 people have now been released. We heard they would release more than 100 people from the prisons. A few of them are Vietnamese, but the rest are Myanmar citizens. … There are about four or five prisons in Guangdong. They are huge ones. We were not put together in one prison but separated in different ones. Three of our villagers have not been released yet. Chinese police said all illegal immigrants who do not have COVID-19 vaccinations would be arrested. Myanmar citizens are now refused by Chinese companies because the owners do not dare hire them. If they are caught, they have to pay fines and may go to prison.”

A labor activist in Ruili, China, told RFA that normally undocumented migrant workers who voluntarily report to the police are taken to the Myanmar border within 20 days, but that since the crackdown they can remain in detention for up to six months. “It takes a long time for the mainland to deport them,” he said. “If they do not have passports, they will be released within a maximum of 20 days on grounds of COVID rules. But for those from Guangdong, they could not get past Baoshan. Whether they take a shortcut or not, it is impossible to pass that line. If arrested, they could be held for at least 3 to 6 months.”