E.g., 06/08/2023
E.g., 06/08/2023
Europe Attracts More Migrants from China

Europe Attracts More Migrants from China

On the morning of June 6, 1993, within sight of the New York City skyline, the rusty freighter Golden Venture grounded itself on a beach to unload 286 undocumented Chinese migrants. Ten died in the attempt to reach the shore. In Europe in June 2000, 58 Chinese were discovered suffocated in a cargo container at Dover, after being smuggled into the United Kingdom.

These tragedies are related to only a part, however, of the wider flow of Chinese migration to Europe, and stand in contrast with the fact that an increasing number of migrants from China are arriving in Europe through regular channels.

China-Europe Migration in Perspective

Although Chinese migration attracts a great deal of media and policy attention in Europe, the number of Chinese migrants is relatively low compared to other immigrant groups. The number of nationals from the People's Republic of China (PRC) who legally reside in Europe was estimated at 200,000 in 2000 (see Chart 1). Europe has tended to attract fewer Chinese migrants than North America and Australia. China was the largest source country for permanent settlement immigration to Canada, for example, contributing 40,296 settlers in 2001.

Chart 1: Numbers of PRC nationals in European countries 2000-2001
Source: Council of Europe 2001. Data are for 2000 or 2001, except for France (1991)

What has been most striking about migration from China to Europe over the last decade or so is the:

  • arrival of migrants from a wider range of source regions in China
  • rapid increase in Chinese migration, especially to parts of southern and central Europe
  • growth in the importance of new channels of migration, especially student migration
  • increase in different forms of irregular migration

Traditionally, Chinese migrants in Europe originated from Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, but an increasing number of these migrants now come from northeastern China. This area, called Dongbei, has been described as China's "rust belt," where factory and mine shutdowns have created rising numbers of unemployed.

There has been a significant increase in Chinese migration to some of the "new immigration countries" of southern and central Europe. For example, migration from the PRC to southern Europe, particularly Italy and Spain, has grown rapidly in recent years. In Italy, the number of Chinese residents rose by 260 percent, from 18,700 in 1991 to 48,650 in 2000. In Spain, there has been a six-fold increase in the number of Chinese immigrants over the last 10 years, reaching 36,000 in 2001.

In central and eastern Europe, countries that at the beginning of the 1990s received few migrants from China now host significant Chinese communities and have become a significant transit zone for Chinese migrants heading for western Europe. The most striking change occurred in Hungary, where it is estimated that there are now approximately 10,000 Chinese. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the initial waiving of visa requirements for PRC nationals contributed to a huge influx of Chinese migrants, some of whom settled in central and eastern Europe, while others took advantage of relaxed immigration controls to transit through the region.

The increase in Chinese migration has not been confined to southern and central Europe. One of the most remarkable features of recent trends in Chinese migration to Europe has been the substantial growth in the number of students and skilled migrants (especially health workers) who have been attracted to northern Europe. In the UK, for example, figures from 2001 show that around 18,000 Chinese students are enrolled in British institutions of higher education, making them the largest group out of a total of 143,000 foreign students. This figure is a 71 percent increase on 2000. Preliminary International Organization for Migration (IOM) figures for 2002 show a further increase of 67 percent, taking the likely total to over 40,000. Other countries in northern Europe have also reported a sharp increase in the number of students from China. In the Netherlands, the number of Chinese students increased by 50 percent between 2000 and 2001. Germany also saw an increase, from 6,526 in 1999 to 9,109 in 2000. Chinese student numbers have also increased in France. Most Chinese students are pursuing courses in science, technology, and business studies.

It seems likely that the current number of Chinese students in Europe may soon approach the figure in the U.S., where there were nearly 60,000 such students in 2000-2001. China is the number one country of origin of foreign students in the United States.

After the completion of their studies overseas, the majority of Chinese students do not return home, but rather take up employment in the destination country, continue studying, or move on to another country. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the return rate of Chinese students in the U.S. over the period 1978-1999 was only 14.1 percent. In contrast, nearly half of the Chinese students in Europe are returning home. The return rate for Chinese students is as high as 47.6 percent in France and 46.8 percent in the UK. Chinese students in Germany return at a lower rate of 37.4 percent.

Irregular Migration

There is a perception in Europe that China is a major source of irregular migration. What are the facts?

Measuring irregular migration is difficult, but there are some indicators that point to current trends. An analysis of border apprehension data collected in 11 eastern European countries indicates that contrary to the image frequently presented in the media, the Chinese accounted for only three percent of those apprehended at the borders of European countries in year 2000. Recent border apprehension data in Germany show that the percentage of Chinese nationals apprehended for attempted illegal entry rose only slightly from 370 in 1992 to 718 in 2000, which is a low figure compared with other nationalities. These figures suggest that either Chinese migrants are very skilful at avoiding detection, or relatively few attempt to cross European borders illegally.

Another statistical indicator of irregular migration is the number of people taking part in amnesty/regularization programmes for undocumented migrants. Here there is a significant presence of Chinese, but only in a few southern European countries. There have been several major amnesties during the 1990s, mainly in the countries of southern Europe. In a number of countries, the Chinese have been consistently among the top five nationalities included in amnesty programs (see Table 1). In the 1997-1998 amnesty in France, China ranked third after Algeria and Morocco. In Italy in 1996 and 1998, China ranked fourth. In Spain, in 1996, the Chinese were the third-most important nationality, and in 2000, China was the fourth-most important country of origin of undocumented migrants benefiting from the amnesty.

Table 1: PRC nationals as a proportion of the total number of regularized migrants ('000s)
China (9.8% )
Dem. Rep. of Congo


Form. Yugoslavia
China (5.9%)
China (7.7%)
China (3.8%)


China (6.6%)
Dominican Rep.
China (5.4%)
China (3.8%)
Dominican Rep.
Source: OECD (2002: 90)

Table 1 shows that France, Italy, and Spain have regularized more than 60,000 Chinese since 1990. These findings suggest that a significant part of the increase in Chinese migration to southern Europe over the last decade has been due to irregular migration, with many Chinese migrants arriving to work in the informal economy.

It is difficult to assess the significance of Chinese irregular migration solely in statistical terms. Chinese irregular migration is often considered to be a special case because of the perceived sophistication of Chinese smuggling organizations, the large amounts of money involved, and the brutality of the means adopted by smugglers. The smuggling of Chinese migrants appears to be highly organized, involving journeys over long distances using complicated travel routes. There have also been many reports of Chinese migrants being abused and exploited en route to Europe and North America.

Asylum Claims

In southern Europe, where amnesties are more frequent and opportunities to work in the informal economy are greater than in northern Europe, very few Chinese claim asylum. Indeed, in all EU countries there were no more than 10,026 applications for asylum from PRC nationals in 2002, representing only 2.8 percent of the total number of asylum applications. The overall trend in Chinese asylum applications in Europe over the last decade or so can be summarized as a gradual increase with significant fluctuations (see Chart 2).

Chart 2: Asylum applications by PRC nationals in 14 European countries* 1989-2002
Source: UNHCR (2002a, 2003)
* They are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Most applications for asylum from PRC nationals in Europe in 2002 were made in only two countries — the UK and France. Nearly two-thirds of the applications for asylum from PRC nationals in 2002 were made in France (2,716) and the UK (3,745). Since the Dover tragedy in 2000, the UK has actually received more applications for asylum from Chinese, up from 2,385 in 2001 to 3,745 in 2002. Indeed, the UK has become the main country of destination in Europe for Chinese asylum seekers, overtaking France.

Only a very small proportion of asylum seekers from China are granted asylum in Europe. In the first half of 2002, less than 7 percent of Chinese asylum seekers in Germany were granted asylum, 0.64 percent in France, and 0.47 percent in the United Kingdom. Yet, few failed asylum seekers are believed to have returned to China. It has proven difficult for authorities in Europe to achieve a significant number of returns to China in the absence of a readmission agreement.

Explaining Recent Trends in Chinese Emigration

Several studies have discussed the reasons why so many migrants leave China each year. Migration flows from China became significant after the economic reforms of 1978 and the 1985 emigration law, which granted ordinary citizens passports provided they could obtain invitation letters and sponsorships from overseas. Chinese emigration is not, however, driven by poverty. The Chinese provinces of emigration are generally the most economically advanced.

There is also a growing demand for opportunities to study abroad, and rapid economic growth in China means that more people can afford to pay for their children to go to school outside their homeland. Tough entrance exams for universities in China provide an added incentive to look for educational opportunities abroad. Sending children abroad to study remains very costly for an ordinary Chinese family. For this reason, many of the overseas Chinese come from prosperous coastal areas, such as Shanghai and the province of Guangzhou.

China's decision to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 may cause additional job losses and fuel migration pressures. WTO membership may have both positive and negative effects on migration. While it has led to an increase in foreign investment, Chinese authorities are also preparing for rising unemployment as inefficient state enterprises come under pressure from foreign competitors. For example, imports from U.S. companies are expected to double by 2010 to $44 billion due to the lifting of trade restrictions, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Rising unemployment in China may increase irregular migration pressures as more jobless Chinese look for opportunities overseas.

Membership in the WTO may also fuel a rise in the number of Chinese students studying overseas. Since its accession to the WTO, China has had to meet increasing demands for highly skilled professionals and talented people in many fields. At the same time, China's rapid economic development is attracting many foreign educational institutions interested in recruiting students from China.

Finally, the spread of human smuggling channels appears to play a role in boosting the numbers of Chinese irregular immigrants. Despite exit controls and the condemnation of unauthorized migration by the Chinese authorities, criminal organizations have succeeded in developing the smuggling of Chinese nationals into a multi-billion dollar business.

Choosing Europe as a Destination

The factors outlined above suggest why and how migrants leave China. But why are they attracted to Europe?

There are signs of a growing demand for skilled workers and students from China in a number of European countries. Shortages of skilled workers in sectors such as health services have already led to campaigns by some European countries, such as Ireland and the UK, to recruit nurses directly from China.

Educational institutions in western Europe seeking to increase their income from student fees have also been quick to exploit the growing market for Chinese students. Hundreds of Western education agencies are now established in China. They provide information about schools in the destination countries, assist with applications for admission, or even help with passport and visa applications. Over 160 institutions from 22 countries recently took part in the China International Higher Education Exhibition Tour. Some destination countries have considered easing visa entry requirements in order to facilitate the movement of students from China. Ireland's education and science minister, for instance, recently commented that his country was prepared to simplify its visa arrangements and to speed up the processing of visas to facilitate the entry of Chinese students.

It has been recently suggested that Europe is becoming a more important destination for Chinese students because of the September 11 attacks in the United States. China is the leading country of origin for foreign students in the U.S. (59,939 in 2000-2001). But since the September 11 attacks, a new trend — sparked by both tightening U.S. visa requirements and growing concerns over security in America — seems to have emerged. Many American universities cancelled their trips to the biggest education fair in China last year. The change in the situation in the U.S. has coincided with the development of clear national priorities and comprehensive strategies by European countries like the UK, France, and Germany to attract more foreign students.

In southern Europe, the de facto acceptance of high numbers of unauthorized migrant workers and the existence of ample employment opportunities for them in the informal economy have contributed to the increase in migration from China. Another important reason is that these new destinations provide fresh business niches for the Chinese. Communities of Chinese in western Europe have usually been concentrated in the catering business. The catering business has become increasingly saturated since the 1990s, however, and there is not much evidence that the communities are entering new industries. By contrast, the Chinese in eastern and southern Europe are often engaged in the import/export trade between China and Europe, and even manufacturing (e.g., the leather and garment industries in Italy), partly encouraged by the economic structures particular to these countries.


The European Commission has identified a number of source countries with which it would like to develop closer cooperation in the migration field. One of these countries is China, partly because of recent concerns about irregular migration.

This short overview of recent trends in migration from China to Europe indicates that while there is some evidence that China is a significant source country for irregular migrants in Europe, there are also other important dimensions of Chinese migration to Europe. Not least, there has been remarkable growth in student migration and signs of a growing demand for health workers in some countries. There is a danger that the benefits of this type of migration, for both Europe and China, may be overlooked in current policy approaches dominated by a focus on irregular migration.

In the coming years, migration from China to Europe is expected to continue to increase. China has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, but most of the new jobs being created there are concentrated in the coastal areas. Competition for these jobs is increasing. According to research conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, about 40 million workers are likely to be laid off by state enterprises over the next five years.

Growing international migration will affect relations between China and Europe in many different policy areas, including trade, development, health, education, and economic affairs. The key question facing policymakers is how this growing "migration relationship" between Europe and China should be managed in order to maximize the benefits. Will migration help to forge closer links between Europe and China and promote the transfer of know-how and remittances, or will it become an obstacle limiting other forms of mutual cooperation?

This article is based on some of the findings that will be published in the 3rd issue of the Journal of International Migration. This journal is online (for subscribers only) at http://www.blackwellpublishers.co.uk/online. The journal is scheduled to be published in July 2003. It is entitled "Understanding Migration from China to Europe," and includes 11 papers, edited by Frank Laczko and Ilse Pinto-Dobernig.


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