Human Rights Watch | July 13, 2015
Passport Cancellations Used to Restrict Religious Minorities’ Rights
Chinese authorities’ use of a two-track system for issuing passports has severely restricted the freedom of movement for virtually all residents of areas populated mainly by religious minorities, Human Rights Watch said in a new report today. China’s discriminatory double-tiered passport system requires residents of those areas to provide far more extensive documentation than other citizens. Additional restrictions in place in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) since 2012 have led to a near-total ban on any foreign travel by residents of that region, except those on government business.
“Chinese authorities should move swiftly to dismantle this blatantly discriminatory passport system,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The restrictions also violate freedom of belief by denying or limiting religious minorities’ ability to participate in pilgrimages outside China.”
The 53 page report, “One Passport, Two Systems: China’s Restrictions on Foreign Travel by Tibetans and Others,” shows the evolution of a discriminatory two-track system for passports applications: a fast-track system is available in areas that are largely populated by the country’s ethnic Chinese majority, but only a slow-track system is allowed for those in most ethnic and religious minority areas. As of October 2014, less than 10 percent of prefecture-level administrations were still required to use the slow-track passport application system; with one exception, all were areas with substantial Tibetan or Muslim populations. Human Rights Watch’s findings are based on analyses of internal regulations and interviews with Tibetans and others.
The report documents cases where residents of areas with slow-track processing who were members of religious minorities faced delays of up to five years in getting a passport or were refused a passport outright, without being given any legally recognized reason.
The report also examines the TAR authorities’ related 2012 decision to recall all ordinary passports in the TAR. When the Chinese government began a national shift to “ePassports” in early 2012, the TAR authorities issued an internal instruction known as Notice No. 22 which announced that “all still-valid ordinary passports in our region shall be withdrawn without exception.”
The TAR government then required all residents of the region to hand in ordinary passports, even if these had years to run before expiration, supposedly to be replaced by ePassports. The demand was never made public – only communicated orally through visits by local officials to individual passport-holders. Old-style passports that were not handed over after such a visit were cancelled.
Since that time, the TAR authorities are not known to have issued any replacement passports or new passports except for travelers on official business and a small number of cases that appear to have been overlooked. According to the TAR government’s main internet portal, only two passports were issued in all of 2012 in one of its seven prefecture-level administrations.
Human Rights Watch’s research found that the government’s apparent reason for retaining restrictive passport policies for some minority areas after 2002 was partly to prevent travel for certain forms of religious study and pilgrimage. When additional regulations restricting foreign travel were introduced in the TAR in 2012, it was made clear that these were linked to religious practice by Tibetan Buddhists. The new regulations declared that attending a religious event abroad, namely teachings by the Dalai Lama, the long-exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, was considered to be a subversive political activity.
Chinese officials have denied that there is a ban on TAR residents’ access to passports, and assert that the process is simply slower because it is more complex.
There are increasing reports of similar restrictions on foreign travel by Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim residents of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). At least two Hui autonomous areas have also been denied access to the fast-track system.
The International Campaign for Tibet is also releasing a report today on the discriminatory policies facing Tibetans seeking to obtain passports. The report, “A Policy Alienating Tibetans,” gives the context for the Chinese authorities’ political agenda of undermining the Dalai Lama and seeking to assert their control over Tibetan people, and features new insights from discussions on social media.
China’s passport system in the TAR falls far short of international standards protecting the right to freedom of movement. The regulations are designed in a manner that discriminates on the basis of religion or ethnicity. The evidence available indicates that the regulations have an apparent discriminatory purpose, and that they are implemented in a manner that has an unlawful discriminatory effect.
The Chinese government should ensure the criteria and procedures for issuing passports are the same for all citizens, immediately implement fast-track processing in the TAR, XUAR, and other regions, and cease treating attendance at religious events or teachings abroad as unlawful activities, Human Rights Watch said.
“Chinese authorities seem to believe that systematically denying Tibetans’ rights to travel brings greater stability to the Tibet Autonomous Region,” Richardson said. “But it’s respect for human rights – including equal access to passports – that might begin to reduce Tibetans’ distrust of the government.”