Destination 中国 Unravelling Nigerian Migrations to China

Since the 1990s, migration in the West has been going through a process of politicization, in part due to the geopolitical shifts that occurred after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the impacts of economic transformations like the Schengen agreements and the rise of anti-immigration sentiments. More contemporarily, the influx refugees in countries like Greece have impacted local, regional and national policy, law and politics.

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, immigration has become highly securitized and migration controls have increasingly become normalized as a means to control security threats. These changes are ongoing with the current debate on immigration in the United Kingdom and the United States, among many instances.

In addition to affecting public sentiments, law and policy, the politicization of migration has also led to changes in research on international migration. A lot of research today focuses on migration to the West and the effects migration has in that sphere. Very little, however, has been said about the migrations happening between non-Western developing countries.

According the UNHCR Global Trends Report of 2015, 86 per cent of refugee migrations happen between developing countries. Despite this, most of the developments in international refugee law are taking place in the West; and this has led to an imbalanced international refugee regime that focuses more on Westward migrating refugees, paying insufficient attention towards migration patterns across the rest of the world.

Developments in the West are important and insightful but using them as the only lens through which we understand international law contributes to the disconnectedness between international law and non-Western narratives and experiences. It also reinforces the distance between the global South and global North, where states from the former region are considered to be sender state and states from the latter, consisting of desirable destinations. Analyses of South-South migrations and their implications on international law are, therefore, important in challenging these constructs.

In Mutua wa Makau’s 2000 analysis, “Critical Race Theory and International Law: The View of an Insider-Outsider”, the current system of international law and international relations is based on the consolidation of Western domination of the world over time. This has resulted in institutionalized hierarchies and dichotomies that are destructive and oppressive because they silence narratives that are non-Western and offer significant and alternative knowledge.

As a result, a refocus on the impact of south-south migrations is necessary. This reconsideration is possible by focusing on emerging narratives in non-Western contexts of South-South migrations. According to Obiora Chinedu Okafor, the purpose of such reconsideration would be “to write the Third World into international legal analysis, focusing on under-studied narratives of third world peoples in international law.” South-South migrations are currently understudied and under-analyzed in international law, as opposed to other disciplines such as anthropology. A multiplicity of approaches and narratives of international migrations is needed in the consideration of the development and evolution of international migration globally.

Hidden Narratives of the Nigerian Community in China

Large-scale Nigerian migration to China began in the aftermath of the 1980s Deng Xiaoping reforms, which opened China to the international community. The first wave of Nigerian migrants to China arrived in the late 1990s. At the time, with few requirements, it was relatively easy for Nigerians to migrate to China. Nigerians were able to get visas on arrival and migrants could remain in China for as long as they wished—so long as they renewed their visas within a given window. One of the first Nigerians to migrate to China reported1 that he came to China in the late nineties with an expired Korean visa and was able to get a port of entry visa, alongside his South African friends.

A lot has since changed. When Africans began to arrive in cities like Guangzhou, looking for greener pastures, this represented something of a culture shock for the local Chinese population. It wasn’t long until this wave of migration began to rouse tensions among the locals in cities like Guangzhou and, in turn, intensify calls to limit the migration of Africans.

Around the early 2000s, the Chinese government revoked the visa on arrival policy for Africans and replaced it with short-term visas and more stringent rules and regulations for entry and residence. Many Africans became restricted in how they could rent properties, carry out their businesses and look for jobs. Additionally, regular police registration and random ID checks became common. Due to the stringent regulations on entry and stay, many Africans were forced into the underground economy, with many building businesses in the shadows. At present, there are reportedly numerous Nigerian-owned businesses in China, fronted by Chinese natives but with Nigerian owners or investors behind the scenes.

At the same time the new stringent regulations were implemented, drug trafficking by Nigerian migrants also became prominent as it offered an alternate path to wealth. In the past few years, there have been numerous cases of arrests, executions, and the persecution of Nigerian migrants due to drug offenses and other crimes. This has shaped the perception of Africans in China, especially Nigerians. In interviews2 I conducted with Chinese locals, the impression was that Africans travel to China to commit crimes. It has now become the narrative that has shaped local attitudes towards Africans. It has also affected Nigeria’s response (or lack thereof) to immigration or legal issues that Nigerian citizens in China are facing.

Some trends in Nigerian Migrations to China

In China, the exact number of Africans is unknown. There is an estimated population range of 60,000 to 300,000 Africans in China, depending on the source. The exact number of undocumented Africans is also unknown, more so the number of undocumented Nigerians. There are also African refugees and asylum seekers in China from countries like Somalia, Liberia and Uganda. These statistics show that beyond the West, there are other parts of world where African migrations are occurring. The migration of Africans to Asia has its own unique characteristics, as well as impact on global migration trends. Nigerian migrations to China are particularly interesting because of some very peculiar features of the migrant community.

A very well organized community

The largest African community in China is the Nigerian community, followed by the Malian community.3 Different groups, often based on nationality, act as a support system to the different African migrants in China. They provide legal, financial and other forms of support. Of all the communities, the Nigerians’ seems to be the most coordinated. The Nigerian migrant community acts as a bridge between Nigerians, local Chinese communities, the Chinese government and the Nigerian embassy in China. The community also fills in a lot of gaps for Nigerian citizens in China who have no protection due to their undocumented statuses. They have a constitution, an elected President General, an informal justice system with elected and respected judges, a task force, as well as well-organized procedures for issues like complaints and dispute resolution within the community. These institutional arrangements are binding to the community and its members, and mimic Chinese legal norms to avoid conflict with Chinese laws.

Communal governance

The Nigerian community in China has elected officials who preside over matters affecting their members. The post of ‘President General’ is an elected position, in line with a Constitution that gives anyone holding office term limits of two tenures. As of March 2016, the President General had completed the tenure of his predecessor who stepped down and another election was planned towards the end of the year. The President General organizes the community, ensuring that safety, representation and support are accessible. The Nigerian migrant community is also made up of sub-communities between which the President General solves power imbalances.

The structure of the Nigerian community in China reflects Nigeria’s ethnic diversity as well. There are leaders of different groups, i.e. there is an Igbo community leader, a Hausa community leader, a Yoruba community leader, etc. These leaders abide by the directives of the President General, who monitors their meetings and elections. According to one of the leaders in the community, the current President General set up the Nigerian Students Union in cities like Nanjing and Shanghai, and observers are sent to Student Union meetings and elections.

While the community has these structures set up, there is, of course, deference to the Chinese government. Nonetheless, the structure in the Nigerian community is able to reach corners of the migrant community in China that the Chinese and Nigerian governments may struggle to penetrate.

An informal justice system that collaborates and achieves consensus

There is an informal justice system within the Nigerian community in China that facilitates dispute resolution at a micro level—which, practically, the Chinese government cannot enforce due to the clandestine existence of many individuals. In my interview with Mr. T (not real name), he stated that the Nigerian community has a task force that handles policing on behalf of the community.

The justice system is presided over by executives (judges) who settle cases brought before them. According to a member of the community, the judges are elected and not appointed. They are often people well respected within and outside the community; as a result, people obey their directives.

The task force enforces the judgments of the executives. If the Chinese police suspect illegal and/or criminal activity, they usually seek the assistance of the Nigerian community. For example, the task force collaborated with the police to track down a suspect in a rape case and handed him over to the Public Safety Bureau. The Nigerian community maintains a strong partnership with the Chinese police, often providing them with valuable information crucial to solving crimes.

The Nigerian community bases its institutional structures on the law of the host country, and not on Nigerian laws. For example, in Nigeria, a person who owes money may be able to appeal to the judge to allow him/her pay back what is owed in small installments but in China, this isn’t the case. In China, restitution is prompt. In civil proceedings, the possessions of the transgressor will be impounded and used as restitution to the victim. This is the same way the Nigerian community enforces justice within the community. For example, if a member of the community owes money to another member of the community, the goods of the debtor will be withheld as collateral by the task force. The debtor’s goods will not leave China until he or she has paid what they owe or the seized goods will be used as restitution.

The community also establishes a support system for people who have fallen against the Chinese justice system for non-violent crimes such as immigration violations (i.e. overstaying visas). Nigerian visas to China are often short-term visas, as a result, people tend to overstay. When visitors are caught overstaying their visas, they are jailed if they cannot afford the funds to buy a ticket back home. There have been instances where individuals within the Nigerian community have helped to raise money to help purchase return tickets for Nigerians who could not afford to pay for one.

The parallel institutional arrangements Nigerian migrants have established in China are illustrative examples of why refocusing on South-South migrations is very crucial. It also speaks to the multidimensional nature of international migrant communities. The clandestine existence of undocumented migrants does not mean that they are completely lawless.

Stopping the cycle of undocumented migrations to China

From my interviews with over 30 African migrants in Beijing and Guangzhou, there was a common thread. Many Africans aren’t familiar with many Chinese laws. For example, Chinese law holds that upon entry into a Chinese port, visitors must register at the Public Safety Bureau (PSB) within 24 hours with a passport and an address. Police registration applies even to those with a permanent residence—they still have to register every time they return from a trip outside China. Due to a lack of knowledge and/or a fear of encountering law enforcement officials, many Nigerians skip this procedure. This is actually what leads to their status problems further down the line. All the undocumented migrants I interviewed did not register at the PSB when they arrived and as a result, even though they came in legally, they weren’t able to extend their visas upon expiration. The fear of being harassed or jailed spurs most people to hide, beginning the cycle of their undocumented existence in China. A solution could be adequate education of Nigerians by the Chinese Embassy in Nigeria on visa policies and laws, including visa renewal procedures during the visa application process. This should ordinarily be a straightforward arrangement for the Chinese government to make.

Moreover, there has to be a closer collaboration between the Nigerian government and the Nigerian community (without interference in the establishment) in providing solutions and support to Nigerians in China. The Nigerian government can provide support by acting as an intermediary between the community and the Chinese government on the problems, which the community cannot solve without high-level diplomacy. For example, support from the Nigerian government is needed in negotiating the release of Nigerians in prison and their return to Nigeria and in collaborating with the community and the Chinese government to fight drug trafficking, etc.

Most importantly, the Nigerian government can help Nigerians by negotiating reciprocal visa facilitation agreements with China. The Nigerian community in China has evolved to protect the interests of Nigerians in an unfamiliar and often hostile environment. This is a narrative that is central to the experience of Nigerian migration to China. There is so much uncharted territory that could potentially alter contemporary views on legal pluralism, informal justice and other aspects of law and policy. By exploring these narratives, we can challenge and change the Western-centric bias of international migration law, and potentially open up new conceptual spaces for international legal scholarship to bring to the forefront narratives that have been relegated to the confines of regional and domestic discourse⎈

  1. The data in this article is based on interviews of Nigerian and other African migrants, international organizations, churches, businesses and others, carried out between 2015 and 2016 in Beijing and Guangzhou by Oreva Olakpe.
  2. Interviews of local community organizations, as well as academics were carried out in the same time period.
  3. The data on the Nigerian community was gathered through interviews of some key community leaders in 2016.