China, Refugees… and Repatriation?

If you’ve been on our blog during the past few months, you may have noticed the news articles about the North Korean refugees being held in China. These refugees have gotten international notice from human rights activists, politicians, and celebrities alike but unfortunately it may not make a difference.

Let me give you some background information on this incident. Early in February, Chinese officials arrested a group of North Korea refugees who had crossed the Sino-Korean border in order to escape the grips of the North Korean government. This issue was first exposed to the world on February 14th through Donga News. It is believed that China eventually arrested 31 refugees and their fate has been up in the air since then. Among those captured, it is said that there are young children and maybe even an infant. Many of these people have family waiting for them in South Korea, family members that can do nothing but wait for their safe arrival.

China’s policy regarding North Korean refugees is to repatriate each and every one of them. Because China is North Korea’s closest ally, China has been extremely cooperative with the North Korean government’s wishes regarding this issue. Although China is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, it has not kept to this in dealing with North Korean refugees. The main reason for this would be because China does not consider those defecting from North Korea to be refugees but instead deem them “economic migrants.” China’s argument is that North Korean defectors are the same as Mexican illegal immigrants in the U.S. In other words, nobody tells the U.S. how it should deal with their issue so no one should tell China how to deal with the North Koreans in their land. However, the difference between the two is that Mexicans do not face death upon being returned to their homeland. If these 31 refugees were to be sent back to North Korea, they will be tortured, imprisoned for life, and possibly even executed.

According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” This is very different from an economic migrant who “chooses to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families. Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom. They have no protection from their own state – indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. ” The UNHCR makes it very clear that North Korean defectors cannot be considered economic migrants and they have the right to be protected from the government that is trying to persecute them.

Many have come together in order to protest against China sending these, and all North Korean refugees, back to North Korea. An online petition was started called Save My Friend and as I write this article, 173,772 persons have signed on. Also, on March 4th forty-seven South Korean celebrities came together and held a concert called Cry with Us in an effort to raise more awareness about the issue. On Friday March 9th, Hillary Clinton made a statement during a joint press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan saying that the U.S. “believes that refugees should not be repatriated and subjected once again to the dangers that they fled from.” The United States Congressional Executive Commission on China had an emergency hearing to discuss the current situation in China regarding the North Korean refugees. The South Korean government has also made direct efforts to stop this atrocity starting with hunger strikes to urging the Chinese government to rethink its actions. As you can see, many people have been fighting for the 31’s lives.

However, there has been news that the 31 refugees have already been sent back to North Korea. Nothing has been verified as of yet and we should not lose hope. I urge you to continue spreading the word about this issue. With more people’s interest, we may be able to still make a difference. Please remember that these people are somebody’s mother, father, brother, sister, and child. Don’t lose hope. Continue to fight for their freedom.

*As of the date that this article has been posted, it has been confirmed that China has already repatriated the above mentioned North Korean refugees.

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