Refugee or exile provinces (qiaozhou 僑州), commanderies (qiaojun 僑郡), and districts (qiaoxian 僑縣) were special administration zones created for peasants and members of the elite who had fled from north China during the 4th century CE and were temporarily settled down in the northern border regions of the Eastern Jin empire 東晉 (317-420), and later the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420-589). The word qiao 僑, today mainly known from the word Huaqiao 華僑 "Overseas Chinese" is actually used with the meaning of the character qiao 㝯 "to sojourn, to visit, to lodge (temporarily)".
The Eastern Jin court first arranged provisional settlements for these refugees, but when it was evident that north China could not be liberated from the barbarian Sixteen States 十六國 (300~430), territory and land was particularly split apart to serve the refugees as new homestead. The border zone between the Eastern Jin empire and the northern zone was River Huai 淮水. In order to escape the war turmoil in north China after the Rebellion of the Eight Princes and the catastrophe of the Yongjia reign-period 永嘉 (307-213), when the imperial court of the (Western) Jin 西晉 (265-316) was expelled from the Guanzhong region 關中 (today in southern Shaanxi) and forced to transfer their capital to Jiankang 建康 (modern Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu), peasants and landowners from the northern provinces migrated southwards, crossed River Huai or even the Yangtze in search for shelter and new land. The Jin court first ordered to use the original household registers from the homeland to create exile districts, where the refugees could be regularly administered and registered. These exile districts, commanderies and provinces were accordingly administered by officials who had also come from the north. Xi Jian 郄鑒, for instance, was regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of the province of Yanzhou 兗州, whose seat was close to present-day Yuncheng 鄆城, Shandong. After his migration to the south, he still bore the title of his office, but resided in Guangling 廣陵 (today's Huai'an 淮安, Jiangsu).
Because the refugees were expected to return in the long run, the respective household registers were provisionally written on white, easily decayable paper, and were therefore called "white registers" (baiji 白籍). In the first years, the government refrained from taxing them, because many did not have their own land – and thus no taxable income. Along with the exemption from tax payment, the refugees did not have to deliver corvée.
This situation changed over the years. Many refugees were able to acquire land and were able to make their living on it. The social elite had also become accustomed to the situation and was all the more able to gain property in the south. Refugee communities were often found scattered among the regular population who had lived in the south before. The autochthonal population felt being treated unfair because they had to pay taxes, but the settled refugees not. Moreover, the discrimination between the two types of household and tax registers was quite complex. For this reason, the Eastern Jin court decided to formally allot land to the refugees and transform them into regular parts of the population, and had them registered in long-term "yellow registers" (huangji 黃籍).
For this purpose, the existing southern commanderies and districts were divided or split apart to provide land and administrative territory to the northerners. These were given the names of territories formerly located in north China. The process was a thorough restructuring of the administration of the border zones located between the Yangtze and River Huai, leading to the situation that traditional southern territory was given to the northern refugees, and some territory occupied by exile population transferred to ancient jurisdictions, with ancient southern districts in refugee commanderies and refugee districts in ancient southern commanderies. People from northern Xuzhou province 徐州, for instance, were settled down in the commandery of Jinling 晉陵, with districts bearing northern names. Even the name of the province was transferred to the south and the seat relocated to Jingkou 京口 (modern Zhenjiang 鎮江, Jiangsu). Only later, it was renamed Southern Xuzhou 南徐州. In the region of Jiangcheng 江乘（today's Jurong 句容, Jiangsu, the commandery of Langye 瑯邪 was created as well as the district of Linyi 臨沂 (both originally located in Shandong). The capital of the above-mentioned province of Yanzhou had been in today's Yuncheng. During the Liu-Song period 劉宋 (420-479), the province of Northern Yanzhou was governed from Huaiyin 淮陰 (close to Huai'an), and that of Southern Yanzhou from Guangling (modern Yangzhou 揚州, Jiangsu). After 364, when the Eastern Jin government promulgated the Soil Partition Act (tuduanfa 土斷法), the northern designations gradually disappeared.
The ongoing chaos in north China caused new waves of refugees escaping to the south, and new exile settlements had to be integrated into the administrative landscape. The situation became so complex that in one commandery, small-size districts with the same name were created. The situation of local government was particularly complex in what is today northern Hubei, Jiangsu, Anhui, and after Liu Yu's 劉裕 (the eventual Emperor Wu 宋武帝 of the Liu-Song, r. 420-422) reconquest of parts of what is today the province of Shandong, even in this region. The original locations were thereafter given the name bei- 北 "northern", while the refugee locations were called nan- 南 "southern".
Yet refugee zones were also created in north China. The state of Former Yan 前燕 (337-370) created in the region of Liaodong 遼東 (today’s Liaoning) refugee commanderies for people from the provinces of Jizhou 冀州 (approx. Hebei) and Qingzhou 青州 (approx. Shandong). The Western Liang 西涼 (400-421) created in today's Gansu the commanderies of Guiji 會稽 and Guangxia 廣夏 for refugees from the southeast. The custom continued into the Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534) and the end of the 6th century. It was abolished with the unification of China by the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618).