08 December 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.”
- Shihuan Chen, “The Workers in Limbo During Guangzhou’s Covid Outbreak,” The World of Chinese, 19 November 2022, https://www.theworldofchinese.com/2022/11/the-workers-in-limbo-during-guangzhous-covid-outbreak/
- The Korea Times, “Chinese migrant workers stranded in Guangzhou's Covid-19 homeless crisis,» 24 November 2022, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/world/2022/11/501_340480.html
- Xinlu Liang, “Chinese migrant workers protest amid Covid-19 lockdowns in Guangzhou textile hub,” South China Morning Post, 15 November 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3199725/chinese-migrant-workers-protest-amid-covid-19-lockdowns-guangzhou-textile-hub
- Xinlu Liang, “Chinese migrant workers stranded in Guangzhou’s Covid-19 homeless crisis,” South China Morning Post, 24 November 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/3200743/chinese-migrant-workers-stranded-guangzhou-covid-19-homeless-crisis
- Stephen McDonell, “China zero Covid: Violent protests in Guangzhou put curbs under strain,” BBC News, 15 November 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-63633109
- Helen Davidson, “Covid restrictions lifted in Guangzhou and Chongqing after China protests,” The Guardian, 30 November 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/nov/30/us-and-canada-urge-china-not-to-harm-zero-covid-protesters-amid-calls-for-crackdown
- Madhur Sharma, “Riots Erupt In China's Guangzhou Over Zero Covid Lockdowns, People Attack Police And Uproot Barriers,» Outlook, 15 November 2022, https://www.outlookindia.com/international/riots-erupt-in-china-guangzhou-over-zero-covid-lockdowns-people-attack-police-and-uproot-barriers-news-237677
- Brenda Goh and Martin Quin Pollard, “Two Chinese cities ease COVID curbs after protests spread,” Swissinfo, 30 November 2022, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/reuters/two-chinese-cities-ease-covid-curbs-after-protests-spread/48097016
- RFA Burmese, “More than 1,000 Myanmar migrants in China wait months or years for deportation,” Radio Free Asia, 27 May 2022, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/migrants-05272022183435.html
05 May 2020
On 11 January 2020, Chinese state media reported the first known death from COVID-19. On 23 January, in the middle of the Lunar New Year holiday and almost overnight, China instituted an internal travel lockdown on people in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei in an effort to contain the domestic spread of the virus. Many other cities, districts, and counties in other provinces followed suit in restricting entry and exit of persons. On 26 March, China announced that it would temporarily suspend entry by foreign nationals holding visas or residence permits. The lockdown on Wuhan was partially lifted on 8 April, with residents being able to leave the city; however, residents have still been urged to avoid unnecessary travel. Restrictions in other cities across China have also eased, as the number of deaths reported by state media have slowly decreased.
Little is known about immigration detention in China. Article 60 of the country’s 2012 Exit and Entry Law provides that persons suspected of violating regulations on exit/entry administration can be detained for investigation. Article 63 of the same law states: “Persons who are detained for investigation or who are to be repatriated upon decision but cannot be repatriated promptly shall be held in custody in detention houses or places of repatriation.”
It is unclear about whether there have been any changes to immigration detention policy in China in light of Covid-19. According to the Shanghai municipal government’s social media, officers working in Shanghai Minhang District Detention Center have been required to remain at their work stations for 30 days, in order to avoid infecting their families and friends. A report from Chutian Metropolis Daily similarly notes that one officer had been stationed and was working at a detention centre in Wuhan continuously for 50 days (starting on 6 February), before dying of illness on 8 April. It appears that legal proceedings in different detention centres are taking place by video call rather than with a full court. In certain detention centres, lawyers have been able to meet their clients within the centres.
On 7 April, Chinese state media reported that five Nigerian nationals in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, had tested positive for Covid-19, and that four of them had frequently visited a local restaurant, subsequently infecting the owner and her eight-year-old daughter, and transmitting the virus to a three year-old boy in Jieyang, another city in Guangdong Province. The state media report sought to dispel rumours that African nationals in Yuexiu District in Guangzhou (a district known for a high number of African migrants) had been subject to a lockdown, with the local Centre for Disease Control claiming that people wearing masks could enter and exit pending temperature checks. Nonetheless, the report noted that the cause of the rumours was likely from “growing concerns over mounting pressure from imported cases on the southern Chinese city [Guangzhou], where 111 imported infections have been reported so far. Among them, 25 are foreign nationals, with nine from Nigeria, three from Angola, two from Democratic Republic of the Congo and two from Niger. One each from France, Brazil, UK, Australia, Ethiopia, Syria, Burkina Faso, Madagascar and Russia has also been reported.”
The Guangzhou health department subsequently announced that it would begin widespread testing of African nationals. It was later reported that the department had tested every African national in the city and found that 111 of the more than 4,500 Africans in Guangzhou tested positive. The local government also established a hotline for "foreigners who experience discrimination".
Reports began to surface of Black African migrants in Guangzhou being subject to racist attacks, including being evicted from apartments and refused entry into hotels and restaurants. Many African students were forcibly quarantined on their university campuses, with little to no material support or access to food. Some Africans have criticised the local government’s policy of quarantining African people who have tested negative for the virus for 14 days for being discriminatory.
Observers underscore the broader context of xenophobic attitudes towards African migrants in China, pointing to the widespread portrayal of African migrants as ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘drug dealers’, ‘rapists’, and ‘spreaders of AIDS’. In 2011 (prior to the statewide 2012 Exit and Entry Law), Guangdong Province implemented the Interim Provisions of Guangdong Province on Administration of and Services to Aliens. These provisions empowered Chinese citizens to report on people suspected to be illegal migrants, expanded the authority of the local police alongside the foreign affairs police to stop foreigners and verify their passports, and also introduced new powers on the part of city or county Public Security Bureaus to “restrict aliens or foreign institutions from establishing residences or offices in certain areas”, namely ‘areas adjacent to Party and government buildings or military restricted zones’. In effect, this Act became a tool of spatialized and racialized control over Black African migrants. Many provisions of this Act were, as argued by Lan (2014), integrated into the statewide 2012 Exit and Entry Law.
On the ground, grassroots community groups comprising of local residents, students, and scholars, have mobilized to provide material support to African communities. The issue of the treatment of Black African nationals in Guangzhou has become an issue of geopolitical tension between China and different African countries.
There is also growing concern regarding the effect of COVID-19 on Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minority groups detained in detention centres and camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. As of 28 February, the Chinese government had confirmed at least 76 cases of coronavirus and two deaths in the region, albeit international human rights organizations, activists, and journalists have noted that the actual number may be much higher. This is particularly concerning given reports of overcrowding, malnutrition, lack of sufficient medical facilities, and other human rights abuses in these so-called ‘voluntary vocational training centres’, though the communication blackout and widespread censorship makes it difficult to ascertain the exact conditions within them. Uyghur Muslims in the diaspora have taken to social media to raise concerns about the risks in detention centres, calling on the WHO to send a delegation to the region to evaluate the spread of the virus; the international community to pressure the Chinese government to release all detained persons; and for medical supplies and other humanitarian support to be sent to the region. In response, the Chinese government has denied that COVID-19 will pose a serious threat to minority groups.
- M. Abdulla, “Uyghurs and the China Coronavirus,” The Diplomat, 5 February 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/02/uyghurs-and-the-china-coronavirus/
- Al Jazeera, “China's Wuhan ends coronavirus lockdown but concerns remain,” Al Jazeera, 8 April 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/china-wuhan-ends-coronavirus-lockdown-concerns-remain-200408021319019.html
- K. Asiedu, “After enduring months of lockdown, Africans in China are being targeted and evicted from apartments,” Quartz, 11 April 2020, https://qz.com/africa/1836510/africans-in-china-being-evicted-from-homes-after-lockdown-ends/
- D. Brophy, “Confronting China’s War on Terror,” Revolutionary socialism in the 21st century, 14 December 2018, https://www.rs21.org.uk/2018/12/14/confronting-chinas-war-on-terror/
- J. Burke, E. Akinwotu, and L. Kuo, “China fails to stop racism against Africans over Covid-19,” The Guardian, 27 April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/27/china-fails-to-stop-racism-against-africans-over-covid-19
- S. Desai, “Xinjiang in danger of severe Covid-19 outbreak,” Asia Times, 17 March 2020, https://asiatimes.com/2020/03/xinjiang-in-danger-of-severe-covid-19-outbreak/
- Global Times, “Guangzhou tightens controls after imported cases from Nigeria infected local restaurant owner, children,” Global Times, 7 April 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1184872.shtml
- J. Ilham and M. Abdulla, “China Says There’s No Risk of a COVID-19 Outbreak in Xinjiang Camps. Don’t Believe It,” The Diplomat, 28 February 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/02/china-says-theres-no-risk-of-a-covid-19-outbreak-in-xinjiang-camps-dont-believe-it/
- J. Lau, “The Crisis in Wuhan ‘Forced Me to Become Political’,” The Nation, 26 March 2020, https://www.thenation.com/article/world/wuhan-coronavirus-quarantine/
- S. Lan, “State Regulation of Undocumented African Migrants in China: A Multi-Scalar Analysis,” Journal of Asian and African Studies, 50(3), May 2014, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275004300_State_Regulation_of_Undocumented_African_Migrants_in_China_A_Multi-Scalar_Analysis
- D. Paulk, “Volunteers Lend Helping Hands to Guangzhou’s Displaced Africans,” Sixth Tone (screenshots posted on Twitter), 15 April 2020, https://twitter.com/davidpaulk/status/1250254477195501568
- L. Song, “China and the International Refugee Protection Regime: Past, Present, and Potentials,” Refugee Survey Quarterly, 13 March 2018, https://academic.oup.com/rsq/article/37/2/139/4934135
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China National Immigration Administration Announcement on the Temporary Suspension of Entry by Foreign Nationals Holding Valid Chinese Visas or Residence Permits,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 26 March 2020, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/t1761867.shtml
- D. Vincent, “Africans in China: We face coronavirus discrimination,” BBC News, 17 April 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-52309414
- Shanghai Political and Legal Affairs Commission, “沒有從天而降的英雄，只有挺身而出的凡人 [There are no born heroes, only ordinary people who stand up,” Shanghai Political and Legal Affairs Commission (Douban), 9 February 2020, https://www.weibo.com/1988563285/Itr2G3nkf?refer_flag=1001030103_&type=comment
- A Group of Men Standing in Front of Closed Shops in Guangzhou, (D. Vincent, "Africans in China: We Face Coronavirus Discrimination," BBC, 17 April 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52309414)