The majority of North Koreans who attempt to escape the repressive regime cross the Yalu River from Korea into either Jilin or Liaoning provinces in Northeast China. From there, they commence an arduous 3000-mile journey south ― commonly known as the “underground railway” ― through China, Vietnam and Laos until they “safely” arrive in Thailand. Sadly, throughout their whole journey in China, these refugees are considered by the Chinese government to be “illegal economic migrants,” and if caught, are arrested and routinely forcibly repatriated to North Korea.
Over the years there have been thousands of documented accounts of refugees being arrested by Chinese authorities and being sent back to North Korea, a country that is widely recognized as being devoid of basic rights and freedoms. Upon return, they face serious human rights abuses including jail, internment in re-education facilities and even death ― tactics used by the Kim government to intimidate other North Korean citizens from attempting their own escape.
In addition to the unknown number of refugees that are caught by Chinese authorities each year, it is estimated that there are a further 50,000 to 200,000 North Koreans residing in China. Forced to live in the shadows, they have no social or legal protections, no support, no rights and no hope. This population includes a large number of women who face heightened vulnerabilities, including being trafficked into the sex trade or sold as wives to local Chinese men.
The decision by the Chinese government to continuously return refugees to North Korea seriously calls into question China’s credibility as a member of the international human rights community. While it might not be common knowledge, China did in 1982 sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. This treaty contains a series of international legal obligations, including the fundamental tenet of non-refoulement: not sending someone back to a country where their life or liberty may be threatened. Despite this, China continues to proclaim that its national asylum legislation is “under development.” As 36 years have passed since its original signing of the Convention, it is safe to say that refugee protection is not a government priority.
The failure of China’s international commitments was again highlighted in the 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on the human rights situation in North Korea, which condemned Beijing for not only repatriating North Koreans but also for failing to protect them from falling into the hands of human traffickers. [However, China] dogmatically continues to arrest and deport North Koreans, citing them exclusively as “illegal economic migrants.”
[Excerpts from Opinion by Evan Jones, program coordinator at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network]