March 10, 2004
Given the appalling human rights situation in North Korea, China needs to provide protection to North Koreans on its territory, not send them back. The Chinese government must not try to evade its international legal responsibility by categorizing North Korean asylum seekers and refugees as illegal immigrants.
Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch

(New York) - China should live up to its international legal responsibilities to protect North Korean asylum seekers and refugees, Human Rights Watch said today. In response to a question at a press conference Saturday on the sidelines of the National People's Congress, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing reportedly said, "These refugees that you talk about do not exist … [They] are not refugees, but they are illegal immigrants."

"Given the appalling human rights situation in North Korea, China needs to provide protection to North Koreans on its territory, not send them back," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "The Chinese government must not try to evade its international legal responsibility by categorizing North Korean asylum seekers and refugees as illegal immigrants."  

Large numbers of North Koreans have fled to China for a number of reasons, including fear of political persecution. Once abroad, they may face imprisonment upon return, even if they left for other reasons, such as to find food. This is particularly true if it is suspected that they had contact with South Koreans or Westerners while abroad, which usually occurs through encounters with missionaries or aid workers. This transforms many North Korean migrants into refugees sur place, or persons who, while abroad, become entitled to protection as refugees because of the risk of political persecution should they return.  
 
"It is well documented by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations that North Koreans who left without state permission are detained, tortured and even executed on return to their country. Their fear of persecution is more than well founded," said Adams.  

Human Rights Watch urged the Chinese government to:

  • Stop the forcible returns of North Korean asylum seekers and the arrest and harassment of aid workers who assist them.  
  • Grant all North Koreans an indefinite humanitarian status that would protect them from harassment and threats of extortion or forcible repatriation to North Korea.  
  • Allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees immediate access to the China-North Korea border region to interview asylum seekers.  
  • Allow U.N. and private humanitarian agencies access to the border region with North Korea in order to provide humanitarian relief, such as food and medicine, to North Koreans in the area.

The injunction not to return refugees to territories where their life or freedom is threatened, also known as the norm against refoulement, is articulated in the 1951 Refugee Convention and has become recognized as a rule of customary international law, binding on all states regardless of whether they have signed that treaty. Since 1982, China has been a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which obligate signatories not to forcibly return asylum seekers who face persecution at home.  
 
The exodus of North Koreans to China spiked in the late 1990's as a result of a food crisis, but continues today due to extreme poverty and repression. Tens of thousands of North Koreans are now hiding in China, principally in Jilin province along the border region with North Korea, but the exact number is impossible to determine.