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(New York) - Many children of North Korean women living in China are denied legal identity and access to education, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. To comply with international standards and its own laws, China should ensure all children can go to school, without preconditions such as requiring them to show household registration papers. China should also stop arresting and summarily repatriating North Korean women who have had children with Chinese men.

"China has nothing to gain by having a growing number of uneducated children," said Elaine Pearson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "To uphold the rights of these children, China does not need to implement new laws, or amend existing ones. It has only to abide by its own laws and the international treaties it has ratified."

The 23-page report, "Denied Status, Denied Education: Children of North Korean Women in China," documents how such children live without legal identity or access to elementary education. These children live in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in eastern Jilin Province, northeast China (near its border with North Korea). Some are from North Korea while others were born in China and have Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers.

Children who have migrated to China from North Korea have no legal right to obtain the household registration (hukou) papers necessary to go to school. Schools demand these documents, despite China's Compulsory Education Law stipulating that all children shall receive nine years of compulsory and free education, regardless of sex, nationality or race. By law, neither North Korean nor half-North Korean children should be required to submit legal identity papers for admittance to schools. Some parents and guardians of North Korean children have been forced to resort to bribery or trickery in order to ensure children can go to school.

One 13-year-old North Korean girl told Human Rights Watch she began attending school in 2007 by borrowing a Chinese girl's identity papers: "I am afraid they will find out I am North Korean, and kick me out of school. Because I don't have hukou [household registration], I started school only this year, and I am four years older than my classmates, who are all Chinese."

"It's unacceptable that children and their parents have to resort to such desperate or illegal measures to enjoy what should be the automatic right of going to school," said Pearson. "China must immediately stop such practices and allow access to education for all children, without preconditions."

Most, if not all, North Koreans in China are refugees since they risk persecution upon return. Leaving North Korea without state permission is considered an act of treason, punishable by heavy penalties including imprisonment, forced labor, and in some cases the death penalty. Under Chinese policies, however, North Koreans are treated as "illegal" economic migrants, rather than refugees.

China's continuing arrest and summary repatriation of North Korean women leaves some families of mixed Chinese and North Korean parents with an awful choice - register their children so they can go school, which then risks the North Korean mother's arrest and deportation, or do not register the children, which means they cannot legally go to school. In some parts of Yanbian, local authorities demand written proof that the North Korean mother has been summarily repatriated as a precondition for the father to register their children. Under China's Nationality Law, a child born in China is entitled to Chinese nationality if either parent is a Chinese citizen.

"As a state party to the Refugee Convention, China must stop arresting and summarily repatriating North Koreans," said Pearson. "The policy is driving families apart, and leaving children without education."

Human Rights Watch recommends that the government of China:

  • Grant all children access to education without preconditions;
  • Allow hukou (household registration for Chinese citizens) for children with one Chinese parent, without requiring verification of identity of the other parent;
  • Stop arresting and summarily repatriating North Koreans, especially children, and women who have children with Chinese men; and,
  • Allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to the North Koreans to determine their refugee status.

Since the mid-1990s, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the border with China to find food and work during and after North Korea's famine. Many intended to stay temporarily, but some eventually settled in China. Some North Korean women have formed relationships and had children with Chinese men. Some North Korean women have done so voluntarily and others have been forced into these situations as victims of trafficking.

Testimonies from "Denied Status, Denied Education":

"I have been living with my husband for about ten years now. We have a seven-year-old son. I never committed any crime. But I don't have any residency status, and neither does my son. It really worries me that he can't go to school."
- 42-year-old woman from Musan, North Korea, living with a Chinese man in a de facto marriage relationship.

"Where I live, if you want to obtain hukou [household registration permit] for a half-Chinese, half-North Korean child, you must obtain a police document verifying the mother's arrest or another form that you fill out explaining that the mother ran away. You also need signatures of three witnesses who would testify that she was repatriated or ran away, and submit them to the police. But that's not all. You have to treat [bribe] relevant officials."
- Chinese father of MH, age 8, whose North Korean mother was arrested and repatriated to North Korea in 2005.

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