As Europe and the United States crack down on migrants from the Middle East and Africa, China is welcoming those with money with the boomtown of Yiwu, known as “Christmas Town”, luring business-savvy Syrians, Yemeni, Libyans and Iraqis.
Although China doesn’t have laws recognizing refugees, it grants visas to people from war-torn countries who can afford to live in the country, paying language course fees or business taxes from their own pocket.
The rapid rise of Yiwu as a business center since the early 2000s has proved an attraction for migrants wanting to rebuild their lives.
The eastern city of 1.2 million people, 285 km (180 miles) south of Shanghai, is nicknamed “Christmas Town” for producing 60 percent of the world’s Christmas decorations – as well as a host of other goods from socks to plastic toys and electronics.
A Yiwu government report showed that in 2016 the city issued 9,675 people temporary residence permits, a 17 percent rise on the previous year, of which over 4,000 were to those from war-torn countries including Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan.
Iraqis were the biggest group to apply for residence permits in China in 2016 with other applications from Yemen, India, Syria, Afghan, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Mali and South Korea.
“Yiwu is a very embracing city,” Ammar Albaadani, 38, from Yemen, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at his apartment in Yiwu, with floors covered by Arabian carpets.
“We Arabs were the first who came to Yiwu to do business and participated in the city’s economic development. Now many of us – Yemenis, Syrians and Iraqis – have wars in our countries. We need to give all of them some warmth.”
Known as the “world’s largest small commodity wholesale market”, Yiwu has transformed the fortunes of its Chinese workers but has also opened up a wealth of opportunities in cheap manufacturing for foreign migrants.
An influx of Arab entrepreneurs – most of them on short-term business visas – has transformed the city into a bustling multi-cultural hub with numerous Middle Eastern restaurants and its own mosque.
But with China’s immigration rules among the strictest in the world for foreigners seeking permanent residency, many of the city’s migrants are worried about how long they will be able to stay in what has become their second home.
‘Safe in China’
Manar Abdulhussein, 38, left behind bombings and attacks in the Iraqi capital Baghdad five years ago and moved her family business to Yiwu with her husband and three sons, Ahmed, 15, Hussein, 11, and Yousif, 4, who was born in China.
She runs a clothing factory with her husband, Alobaidi Mohammed, exporting to back to Iraq, which has expanded from one floor to three floors in the past five years.
“We had our factory in Iraq. Then there was a war. Many people urged us come to China to continue our work. Our materials were originally from China,” said Manar, who has adopted a Chinese name, Lan Lan, to help to fit in.
With so many Iraqi migrants in Yiwu, there is now an Iraqi school in the city. But it is hard to plan for the future amid uncertainty over whether they will be able to stay, said Manar.
“It’s very safe in China so I hope my children can settle down, finish their studies and find jobs. But even if we stay here for a long time, we won’t get Chinese passports,” said Manar, who also teaches parents Chinese at the Iraqi school.
Ammar, from Yemen, first came to China 19 years ago as a student on a state scholarship. When fighting in his country escalated three years ago, he decided to settle in Yiwu.
“The time I last left my country was a very bad memory. It was 2014, Houthi rebels had reached Sana’a and were about to occupy it,” Ammar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in fluent Chinese.
“I expected the situation would get worse, so I left with sadness.”
Last year, Ammar set up the “Silk Road Culture Club” to help foreign migrants integrate. The club organizes activities for expats and locals and is recognized by the local government.
As he spoke, his club was about to host a New Year gathering for members to make Chinese dumplings.
“It’s a New Year festival, so we make dumplings, he said. “Many of us don’t have families here and few relatives. So, we’re trying to make them feel they belong to a big family.”
Despite Ammar’s efforts to assimilate, his residency status remains uncertain. “I have lived more years in China than in Yemen, but I’m using a Yemen passport. It’s really hard to get permanent residency.”
Since 2015, China’s strict immigration laws have been relaxed – starting in the commercial center Shanghai – to attract more highly-skilled workers.
To acquire permanent residency, candidates need to have lived in China for four consecutive years and have an annual salary of 600,000 yuan ($87,000) with annual income tax above 120,000 yuan ($17,399), according to a report by the state-owned Shanghai Morning Post.
Immigration experts said there are still some internal guidelines to be checked case by case.
The country of 1.3 billion approved just 1,576 Chinese “green cards” allowing permanent residency in 2016, up 163 percent on the previous year, according to a report by the state-owned English newspaper China Daily.
“If we want to stay in China, we need policies that can make it easier for us, especially visas and residency, and children’s education, social insurance and medical care,” said Ammar.
“I have been thinking about Europe, but since we have lived in China for so long, and we are used to the life here now, so it is hard for us to move to another continent.”
New way of life
Mike, a 24-year-old actor from Syria, who goes by his professional name, is a newcomer to Yiwu. In 2012, a year into Syria’s civil war, Mike fled his home city of Damascus.
He first went to study in Malaysia, and then came to Yiwu where he studied Chinese for two years in the city’s business school, where foreigners made up 12.5 percent of students.
“When I studied, I also worked as an actor. Acting is my ambition,” said Mike, who has played roles as a Westerner in Chinese soap operas and films.
But with his acting income not enough to live on, Mike is now setting up his own import-export company and plans to apply for a business visa, aiming to get permanent residency one day.
“I hope I can buy a flat in China and bring my parents to live with me,” said Mike.
Ammar said he had learnt a lot about different ways of working in China but his final goal was to go home.
“We hope in the future… there will be peace in the Arab world. Then the Silk Road will have new directions,” said Ammar.