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Irregular Migration

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Irregular Migration

Lan Diao Maren Opitz

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Irregular migration in China is increasing. Some of these migrants are traders from Africa or women entering the country in order to get married. Other migrants come from neighboring countries to work in Chinese agriculture or industry. Regulations on irregular migration are very strict, but there are also pragmatic approaches.

An Angolan trader bargains with a Chinese retailer in Guangzhou. An estimated 200,000 people from African countries live in the southern province of Guangdong. (© picture alliance / Photoshot)

In 2011, the Chinese authorities investigated around 20,000 cases of irregular entry irregular residency and irregular employment (twice as many as in 1995). A number of irregular immigrants are African traders, particularly concentrated in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Representatives of the African community have strongly criticized Chinese police for how they deal with immigrants without valid documents. There are also Russian women who cross into China over the Russian-Chinese border in the northern Chinese province of Heilongjiang, where they often find employment in the entertainment sector.

Many of the irregular migrants come from China’s neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in search of employment in agriculture or factories in the south of China. Some enter with a work permit and stay in the country after its expiration, while others do not possess valid entry permits and are smuggled into the country. China has a pragmatic approach in dealing with (irregular) border crossings: In two border cities, Dongxing on the border to Vietnam and Ruili on the border to Myanmar, free trade zones have been created in recent years in which approximately 37,000 traders from neighboring countries legally reside. China considers the creation of such trading zones to be an opportunity to strengthen its economic relations with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Marriage Migration

Another phenomenon is the irregular entry of "foreign brides". Because the one-child policy has led to a surplus of men in Chinese society, some Chinese men "buy" their wives from countries like Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. In the province of Yunnan, near Myanmar, a pilot program is currently being tested to legalize entry for marriage purposes. Couples can have their marriage registered there, whereby the wife obtains a residence permit. In a marriage between a Chinese citizen and a foreigner, the latter only obtains an unlimited residence permit after s/he has lived at least nine months in China for five consecutive years.

Legal Regulations

According to data from the Chinese Department of Public Security, 2,614 foreigners were arrested in 2012 while attempting to illegally cross the Chinese border. So-called border patrol troops and armed special units of the police under the direction of the Department of Public Security are responsible for border security. The Entry Law for Aliens, reformed in July, 2013, also aims at the containment of irregular migration to China. Among other provisions, it provides strict penalties for overstaying a visa and for taking up illegal employment (now also for employers). What impact this law has on low skilled workers and in some cases foreigners working without valid permits – for example Filipino housemaids, African traders and brides from Korea, Russia and Myanmar – is still unknown. The law calls on the population to report suspicious people. Employers and universities should indicate to the police if they learn of any foreigner having secondary employment.

This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile China.



  1. Wang (2012), Deng (2010), Chung (2010), p. 354, Zhang (2013), Shen (2011), Central Government of the People’s Republic of China (no date c), Liu (2011), Lefkowitz (2013), Denver Post (2012).


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Lan Diao, Doctor of Educational Sciences in foreign language didactics with a focus on Chinese didactics, originally comes from Beijing and is currently a teacher for Chinese and German at a secondary school in Hamburg.

Maren Opitz has a master’s degree in International Migration and Intercultural Relations from the University of Osnabrück and is currently working for the German Youth for Understanding Committee in Hamburg. After completing her bachelor studies in Sinology, Civil Law and Language Acquisition Research she spent two years in China where she worked inter alia in the office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Shanghai.