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Refugees Nearing Dream of Citizenship
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Almost 30 years after they fled Vietnam during its war with Cambodia, some 260,000 ethnic Chinese refugees are waiting to be granted Chinese citizenship.

The refugees, who live in the six provinces and autonomous regions of Guangdong, Yunnan, Hainan, Fujian, Jiangxi and Guangxi, came to China between 1979 and 1982.

Other small groups came from Laos and Cambodia, and the population today has grown to about 300,000.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee's Office in Beijing is helping the government draft national refugee legislation, now in its final phase, which it hopes will address the naturalization issue for the entire Indo-Chinese refugee population in one go.

It is unclear when the draft will be submitted to the State Council for final review and approval.

"We are quite confident," UNHCR's Beijing-based regional representative Veerapong Vongvarotai said yesterday of the process moving forward. "We've hardly witnessed such a large group of people being accepted in a country in one go."

Despite the lack of a specific timetable for the refugees' naturalization, China has provided them both financial and non-financial assistance, and many of them already have access to social welfare benefits, including pensions, medical care and education.

However they do not yet have the legal right to vote.

Very few of them want to return to Vietnam, and Hanoi has also expressed a reluctance to take them back, Veerapong said.

The Indo-Chinese refugees form a major part of UNHCR China's caseload.

UNHCR official Antonio Guterres said the integration program was one of the most successful in the world.

Other cases being handled by UNHCR China involve people from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and parts of Africa.

Resettlement abroad can take as long as two years or more, as the UNHCR needs to go through a long process of determining whether someone is a refugee or an "economic migrant" and then find a country that will accept them.

With the exception of the Indo-Chinese, China does not allow refugees to stay permanently.

The US and Sweden accept the most refugees annually, the UNHCR said.

In China, refugees, or those under "temporary protection", are given a monthly stipend of up to 700 yuan (US$90) by the UNHCR to help pay for daily expenses and accommodations.

However, budget cuts of as much as 20 percent last year and rising living costs in cities like Beijing have strained the UNHCR's ability to provide more assistance, particularly affordable education for refugee children.

(China Daily June 1, 2007)

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