By Megha Rajagopalan
BEIJING (Reuters) - China has been quietly toughening travel restrictions on students and businessmen traveling from Ebola-hit West Africa even as it increases support to fight the deadly disease on the ground in the region, diplomats say.
Beijing-based ambassadors from Liberia and Sierra Leone, whose countries along with Guinea are the hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak, say some of their nationals are staying away from China due to the new procedures.
No cases of Ebola have so far been reported in China.
"You have many Liberians, Guineans and Sierra Leonians who come frequently to conduct business," Dudley Thomas McKinley, Liberia's ambassador to China, said in an interview. "Of course this has impacted them in a negative way and has slowed it down.
"It has impacted the numbers of people traveling to China from those regions, whether for business or for study," he added, saying he planned to raise the concern with China's Foreign Ministry.
China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied there was any change in visa policy for West African applicants.
Most West Africans enter China through the southern province of Guangdong, which neighbors Hong Kong. The Guangzhou Daily said 438,000 Africans, mostly traders, passed through the provincial capital from January to October last year.
Victor Bockarie Foh, Sierra Leone's ambassador to China, said he himself faced stepped-up screening when he returned to Beijing after a recent trip to his home country.
"I came back and at the airport I was very rigorously examined," he said, adding he did not fault China for stepping up restrictions on travelers from his country.
"If you fly with a disease like this, it is like flying with a bomb," he said. "They (China) have not closed their doors. They are only being careful."
McKinley said Liberian students, including those on a government scholarships, had difficulties obtaining visas in time to begin the fall semester. Most of their cases were worked out but some had postponed their studies by a term, he said.
The Embassy of Guinea did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
China is not alone in tightening travel restrictions. The United States has toughened health checks for passengers from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Other countries such as Australia have stopped issuing visas altogether for citizens from the impacted countries.
China, Africa's biggest trade partner, promised last year to send over 1,000 personnel to help fight the outbreak that has killed over 8,000 people. Beijing has also contributed over $100 million in aid to the anti-Ebola effort.
(Additional reporting by Natalie Thomas, Adam Rose and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)