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Fleeing China: A Chinese Migrant’s Journey Across The Balkans To The EU

Waiting at a refugee center in the small northwestern German town of Bramsche, a Chinese migrant recovers after a monthlong journey across the Balkans into the European Union, where he hopes to gain asylum.

A native of Shijiazhuang in northeastern China’s Hebei Province, the 26-year-old Ming — a pseudonym to protect his identity — recently completed the so-called Balkan Route for migrants, joining tens of thousands of asylum seekers from around the world who are fleeing war, poverty, and repression in hopes of starting a new life in Europe.

A cafe owner in China, Ming says economic and political pressure from the Chinese Communist Party’s strict COVID-19 lockdown measures crippled his business and left him and his family stuck in their apartment with little access to food and water. Frustrated and scared, Ming said he posted about their situation online and was critical of the government’s COVID policies, which he said was like living “in a prison.”

Shortly after speaking out online, he says he was visited by a police officer who warned him to stop posting about the lockdown. But he didn’t listen, which led to another visit by the police. This time they were violent and took Ming’s phone and threatened him and his family.

He then decided he was no longer safe in China and needed to seek a future elsewhere.

“As long as the government is the same, I can’t go back to China,” Ming told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, who confirmed his identity and parts of his story but withheld details to protect his relatives in China.

The journey to Germany has been far from straightforward. He managed to fly to Serbia, where he has visa-free entry on his Chinese passport. From there he went west into Bosnia-Herzegovina, another visa-free destination, before embarking on a migrant trail into the EU via Croatia with asylum-seekers from China, Afghanistan, and the Middle East — dealing with strict migration patrols and bouts of hunger before finally arriving in Germany in late September.

Once buoyed by a decades-long economic boom that pulled millions of people out of poverty and turned many into billionaires, recent years of slowing growth and more severe repression under leader Xi Jinping has seen growing numbers of Chinese search for work abroad, along with an increasing number of asylum seekers.

Data compiled by the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, shows that since Xi became Communist Party secretary in 2012 and introduced a more oppressive government system, the number of asylum seekers from China has grown year-by-year and particularly after the country’s strict COVID lockdowns.

In total, around 730,000 Chinese citizens have sought asylum since 2012, with more than 170,000 living outside China with refugee status. The UNHCR said that since mid-2022 there are 116,868 Chinese seeking asylum around the world.

Fleeing China

For migrants like Ming, that trend is due to an increasingly repressive political climate and the bleak economic prospects in China that reached a breaking point amid the government’s zero-tolerance policy toward COVID-19.

Those policies included constant testing, intrusive monitoring, border controls, and strict lockdowns that restricted movement and saw many Chinese lose their jobs. The unpopular measures even sparked a rare display of public protests across China in November 2022.

Now that the policies have loosened and international travel is possible, the number of Chinese leaving the country — legally and illegally — is on the rise. The United Nations has projected China will lose 310,000 people through emigration in 2023, compared with 120,000 in 2012.

This has led to a major influx of Chinese migration to the United States on a relatively new and perilous route through Latin America.

According to figures published by Panamanian immigration authorities, Chinese were the fourth-highest nationality, after Venezuelans, Ecuadorians, and Haitians, crossing the Darien Gap jungle during the first nine months of 2023 as they made the journey further north by bus and by foot to Costa Rica and eventually to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The EU has traditionally been a less common destination for Chinese asylum seekers, but figures are growing there as well. Exact numbers for the entire bloc are unavailable, but journeys along the Balkan Route are rising fast, with countries like France, Germany, and Spain the leading destinations for the claims.

The European border and coast guard agency, Frontex, recorded 330,000 so-called irregular migrant arrivals in 2022, the highest number since 2016. New data from the agency for the first four months of this year shows that 22,500 irregular border crossings were detected along the Balkan Route, which Frontex said was the second-most-active route for migrants heading toward the EU after crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.

The Balkan Route

After entering Bosnia from Serbia, Ming said he spent several days in Bihac, a city in the northwest part of the country near the border with Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013.

While there, he encountered a large group of migrants who camp or stay in makeshift housing in preparation for making the difficult crossing into the EU. He said he was cautious about sleeping at the camp and instead stayed in abandoned and dilapidated buildings in Bihac with several other Chinese migrants. Food and clothes were brought, he says, by volunteers from the migrant-aid organization No Name Kitchen, which helps migrants making the difficult journey to the EU.

According to Bosnia’s Security Ministry, around 2,000 migrants are currently staying at the camps near the border with Croatia.

Ming says he first tried to cross into Croatia in mid-September along with a friend, crossing through forests and rivers where they eventually reached a small border town and were planning to take a bus to Zagreb and then move by train toward Germany

But they were stopped by police who inspected their documents and told them they would be returned to Bosnia.

Ming says his passport, mobile phone, wallet, and bag were confiscated and he and his friend were taken to the border in the back of a police car along with four Afghan migrants. Once there, he says the policemen kept his belongings and told them to cross the border by foot. “They took my bag, mobile phone, money, and passport,” Ming said. “I begged them to give me my passport back, but one of them got angry and pushed and hit me.”

Ming says the next day they crossed the border illegally again into Croatia and managed to avoid the police. They then traveled by bus and train until reaching Germany nearly 24 hours later, where they registered with the immigration service and made their asylum claims.

Barbara Bekares, a spokeswoman for No Name Kitchen, told RFE/RL the movement of migrants is much more fluid today than in the past, with detained people often processed and released quickly, which allows them to quickly attempt to cross again.

She added that “when it comes to the confiscation of passports by the Croatian police, such stories are not new” and that other migrants have claimed similar experiences, although it is difficult to gain evidence to corroborate the claims.

Official migrant statistics in Bosnia do not include Chinese nationals, but the government’s Foreigners’ Affairs Service told RFE/RL that 200 Chinese have been put in temporary reception centers this year.

The Balkan country’s border police told RFE/RL that they’ve caught 78 Chinese citizens crossing the border to Croatia illegally since the beginning of 2023.

The Chinese Embassy in Sarajevo did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment about the number of Chinese migrants passing through Bosnia.

Waiting In Germany

Since arriving in Bramsche in late September, Ming says he’s been working hard to study German and that he dreams of one day opening his own cafe in the country.

At the refugee center in Germany, he says he’s met other people from China since applying for asylum and awaiting a decision. The State Reception Authority of Lower Saxony, which oversees reception centers for the German state where Bramsche is located, told RFE/RL that 40 Chinese nationals are staying in its reception centers.

Germany has received more than 220,000 asylum requests so far in 2023, including more than 380 from Chinese citizens, the country’s Federal Office for Migrants and Refugees told RFE/RL.

Ming’s asylum request is currently awaiting an interview with German officials who will also examine his documents. If officials rule in his favor, Ming will receive asylum and the right to a residence permit. But if his request is rejected he would be deported to China.

He says he has no Plan B in case his claim is rejected.

“I don’t know if [the German authorities] will allow me to stay, but I will tell them why I had to leave [China]. I think Germans will understand. It’s a good country and I feel free here,” he said.

Source : Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty