The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Chinese authorities of effectively banning minorities from having passports by creating a two-tier system, thereby making it difficult for Tibetans and Uighurs to travel abroad.
The New York-based human rights group said on Monday that China's passport policy in areas that are inhabited by Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs is different and more inconvenient than in areas populated by mostly Han Chinese.
According to a report by the HRW, the discriminatory system requires more documents from Tibetans or Muslim populations than from other citizens, causing a long waiting period and even leading to an effective ban on foreign travel and refusals to issue of passports without explanation.
The report titled “One Passport, Two Systems: China’s Restrictions on Foreign Travel by Tibetans and Others,” says another "fast-track system" is available for the country’s ethnic Chinese majority.
The group said China has intensified controls over minorities and one aim of the passport restriction is to prevent travel for certain forms of religious study and pilgrimage.
An unnamed Tibetan blogger quoted in the report said that “getting a passport is harder for a Tibetan than getting into heaven. This is one of those ‘preferential policies’ given to us Tibetans by [China’s] central government.”
"If you are a religious minority who lives in a part of the country where most people are minorities, it's virtually impossible to get a passport," Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"Chinese authorities should move swiftly to dismantle this blatantly discriminatory passport system," she added.
The report is based on a study of official documents, websites, news sources, social media and interviews with members of ethnic minorities. In 2012 only two passports were issued in Tibet's Changdu where 650,000 people live, after all ordinary passports were recalled.
Nearly 5 million people in China’s far west Ili Kazakh Autonomous region were ordered to hand their passports over to the police indefinitely in May. The police said that if the passports are not handed over, they will be cancelled.
Passport restrictions have long been used by Chinese authorities to control and suppress dissidents, Muslim Uighurs and Tibetans.
While China’s government justifies the restrictions on the grounds of public safety and preventing people from joining militant groups abroad, human rights activists say Beijing aims to stop Uighur refugees fleeing repression with their families.
The population of Xinjiang autonomous region, which is called “East Turkestan” by the region’s indigenous Uighur Turkic Muslim minority, consists of nearly 45 percent Uighurs and 40 percent Han Chinese.
Hundreds of people have been killed in unrest in Xinjiang in the past two years, where China's repressive policies - including controls on religion and Uighur culture - have intensified.
The HRW report came immediately after Thailand deported more than 100 Uighur Muslims to China, who were shown on state television with hoods on their heads and accused of planning to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria.
They were among a group of about 250 Uighurs being held in camps in Thailand for the last two years after fleeing China. There are 60 Uighurs remaining in detention camps according to Thai authorities - 52 men, four women and four children.