United States Refugee Program

Curious about the community of North Korean refugees in the United States, I tried to dig up any information that I could in regards to adjustments of defectors here. I did not expect to find too much information available on the Internet easily since many refugees remain vulnerable after defection considering that family members often still live in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. To my surprise, I did come across a very interesting article about a particular family of refugees in America on the Hankyoreh newspaper website.

“Defectors Heading to US Realize Dashed Hopes of a Promised Land.” A family of North Koreans had been officially granted refugee status in 2009. They had headed to the United States hoping to achieve an American Dream for themselves. However, two years later, in the summer of 2011, the older son returned home after a shift as a dishwasher in a restaurant to find that his father had stabbed the young man’s mother during a fight before committing suicide. The author of the article adds that the tragedy has led the older son to find solace in alcohol day and night, while his younger brother attends regular counseling. After introducing the horrible circumstances and end to this family’s hopes, the author describes the situation in America as “worse than starvation” because of the difficulties in adapting to new surroundings in the United States after having gained admittance as a refugee.

The article claims that more than 400 North Korean defectors live in the United States, explaining that the United States has become the main destination for North Korean defectors because of the proximity of South Korea to North Korea. Although I did not find information on the numbers of defectors living in the United States after first availing South Korean citizenship and living there, the article’s record contradicts the US Department of State’s claim that the United States has accepted 120 North Korean refugee families since the authorization of the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004. With this understanding of the current situation, I read the rest of the Hankyoreh article. The article described the repetitive and drawn out interview processes with the UNHCR that asked defectors their reasons for requesting refugee status and for wanting to resettle in the United States as opposed to South Korea – questions to which the article suggests the refugees respond with predetermined responses necessary for their acceptance into the United States.

Moreover, the article claims that upon arrival in America, refugees end up in debt because they are expected to repay the money for their flight to the United States and have limited access to financial assistance through the government. Instead, they often rely on the aid of brokers who require money for their services, forcing North Koreans to acquire whatever jobs possible to prevent the further accumulation of debt. Defection comes with a price, but most refugees are merely seeking freedom and a guarantee of human rights without fully realizing the costs they will later have to pay for their defection. The article describes the refugees as further victimized because they escape hardship only to endure more hardship to try to make ends meet in the capitalist American society. Such hardship eventually led families to fights and even suicide.

Because of the very strong, negative tone of the article, I had trouble taking the article as more than a piece of propaganda. Somehow the overbearing attitude led me to doubt the factuality of the article, so I decided to read about the refugee resettlement program directly to find out if the tenets were as distant and tough-love as the Hankyoreh news article reported. The Cultural Orientation Resource Center describes the process of resettlement in detail. First, the International Organization for Migration arranges transportation to America, and, confirming the Hankyoreh article, refugees are expected to repay the costs of transportation if they had not opted to pay for their transportation in advance. Before arriving in the United States, the Refugee Program holds a 15-hour cultural orientation to explain the new lifestyle that awaits them as well as to help refugees to form realistic goals within the American society.

After arriving in the United States, refugees either settle in areas in which relatives may already be living or in small towns, suburbs, or cities based on access to housing, jobs, and social services. In these various locations, refugees work with resettlement agencies or sponsors that provide refugees with information, arrange housing and basic needs, and prepare resettlement plans, which refer refugees to employment agencies and social services. Refugees are then expected to find employment as soon as possible because of the American cultural values of hard work and initiative…I was surprised. I did not think that the program designed to help people escaping war, political persecution, starvation, and the violation of human rights would have so little warmth or understanding. I could understand where the Hankyoreh news article’s harsh tone came from after reading through the resettlement program. Why does America expect refugees to overcome every obstacle with such self-sufficiency without further considering the situations from which refugees arrive in the United States? Before I make too many assumptions on the nature of the resettlement program of my own, I will have to take a look into the organizations helping refugees locally to get a bigger picture. Hopefully I will find more humanistic approaches to aiding such refugees as North Korean defectors in the process.

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