Magazine article Forced Migration Review

North Koreans in China in Need of International Protection

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

North Koreans in China in Need of International Protection

Article excerpt

In the face of continuing persecution of North Koreans who are forcibly returned to their country of origin by China, the international community needs to reconsider how it might better work towards securing protection for North Koreans. Some may be political refugees, others 'refugees surplace'; they may not have been refugees when they left their country but become refugees because they have a valid fear of persecution upon return.

In February 2012, the South Korean press reported that China's police were holding some 30 North Koreans who had crossed the border illegally, and were about to return them. Although this practice had been going on for decades, the South Korean government publicly protested for the first time and a number of Western and Asian governments raised the issue with China. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees publicly urged the Chinese government not to send the North Koreans back.

Behind the advocacy was the knowledge that, if returned, the North Koreans would face severe punishment. The North Korean government considers it a criminal offence to leave the country without permission and punishes persons who are returned. Those deemed to have sought political asylum in China or to have tried to reach South Korea receive the harshest treatment. They are subject to lengthy imprisonment or even execution. The group of 30 threatened with return fit these categories.

Grounds for protection

In recent years, an increasing number of North Koreans arriving in the South1 have been giving testimonies about the beatings, torture, detention, forced labour and - in the case of women impregnated by Chinese men - forced abortions or infanticide to which they have been subject following deportation.2 When released from detention, many escape back to China and make the harrowing journey to South Korea.

While the Chinese government allows thousands or tens of thousands of North Koreans to hide in their country, the North Koreans have no rights and can be deported at any time. Over the past two decades, China has forcibly returned tens of thousands of North Koreans. In China's view, they are illegal migrants who cross the border for economic reasons. Their status, however, is far from clear because China has no refugee adjudication process and UNHCR has been denied access by China to North Koreans at the border.

That a definite number are seeking asylum because of a well-founded fear of persecution is probable. Some 150,000 to 200,000 people are incarcerated in North Korea in labour camps and other penal facilities on political grounds.3 North Koreans are regularly arrested if they express or appear to hold political views unacceptable to the authorities, listen to foreign broadcasts, watch South Korean DVDs, practise their own religious beliefs or try to leave the country. Moreover, those who serve time in detention for having gone to China know that they will be under surveillance - and face discrimination - in North Korea, and therefore many leave again, this time not for food or work but to seek political refuge, ultimately in South Korea.

A second consideration is that a certain number of those who cross illegally into China for economic reasons could be found to qualify as refugees if they were compelled to leave North Korea because of economic policies that discriminated against or persecuted them on political grounds. In North Korea, under the songbun social stratification system, citizens are assigned to a particular class based on the political loyalty of their families (core, wavering or hostile).4 Those in the lower categories do not have the same access to food and material supplies as do the political elite and much of the army. Their quest for economic survival could therefore be the result of political discrimination or persecution, and the right way to handle these cases would be to examine them in a refugee status determination process.

But by far the most compelling argument why North Koreans should not be forcibly returned is that most, if not all, fit the category of 'refugee sur place'. …

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