North Koreans who escape into China are labeled as 'illegal economic migrants' and deported back
South Korean human rights activists hold a rally against deportation of North Korean defectors in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul, on Jan. 23, 2007. Some 500 more North Koreans were reportedly deported from China on Oct. 9. (Photo: JUNG YEON-JE / AFP)
An International rights group has slammed China for ignoring international rights treaties by forcefully repatriating some 500 North Koreans based on an agreement with Pyongyang.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) cited an underground South Korean Christian missionary named Stephen Kim to say the repatriation happened on Oct. 9.
“The Chinese government transported the North Koreans in vehicle convoys over five separate border crossings,” the rights group said in a statement quoting Kim.
“Some of the detainees had managed to have Chinese guards call family members” and inform them, HRW added.
The group pointed out that concerns over the forced repatriation of North Korean civilians fleeing the country have increased since the reopening of its borders with China in August this year.
The returnees, mostly women, face grave risks in North Korea including being “detained in forced labor camps, and face torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, and execution,” the rights group said.
North Korea faces multiple allegations at international forums for its human rights violations.
North Korea is rated with a dismal three points out of 100 in the Freedom in the World 2023 index released by US-based Freedom House.
North Korean law treats leaving the country without permission as a crime of “treachery against the nation.” The violators are “punishable by death or by detention in abusive forced labor camps,” HRW said.
“Faced with this threat, any North Korean who leaves or stays outside the country without permission should be regarded as a “refugee sur place,” the rights group added.
The European Union defines refugee sur place as “a person who was not a refugee when they left their country of origin, but who becomes a refugee, that is, acquires a well-founded fear of persecution, at a later date, owing to intervening events.”
China is a party to the UN Refugee Convention and the UN Convention Against Torture, which prohibits the forced return of anyone at genuine risk of persecution or torture, and was acting against its commitment, it said.
However, China labels North Koreans who escape into China as “illegal economic migrants” and deports them based on a bilateral agreement.
The rights group said the Chinese deportation does not allow North Koreans to “seek asylum or resettlement” based on the bilateral agreement.
It said China earlier deported 80 North Koreans on Aug. 29, and 40 others on Sept. 18. Some 50 North Koreans were forcibly repatriated to their country in July 2021, the group alleged.
In 2013, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Korea warned the Chinese government that officials involved in forcible repatriations were at risk of criminal liability for abetting crimes against humanity.
The group also sought support from countries worldwide to urge China to put a stop to forced repatriations.
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