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North Korean soldiers in a border guard post are seen from the Chinese side in Tumen, China, January 7, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

A North Korean husband nervously waited for an overseas phone call from his wife last Saturday. He hoped she and their 4-year-old son were safe after secretly crossing the North Korea border into China. Having previously escaped to South Korea, he dreamed that his long separation from his family would soon be over. But two hours went by with no call. Finally, his worst fears were confirmed when a contact told him that China government authorities had detained his wife and son, along with eight others fleeing North Korea.

Now his life consists of desperate calls to contacts, urgent appeals to foreign embassies and the South Korean government, and outreach to media and nongovernmental organizations. He’ll pull any lever, push any button, to free his family.

How does one man fight off China’s crackdown on fleeing North Koreans, people whom Beijing refuses to consider refugees? For the husband, it’s a race against time and the unimaginable – China sending his loved ones back into the hands of North Korea’s feared bowibu, or state security. The latest from the border area is that China is now returning North Koreans as quickly as within two weeks. “We are desperate,” said the husband. “If sent back, they could face death, or the political prisoners camp. We have nowhere to turn to but the media and the international community to mobilize and press China to save my family.”

These refugees are caught in the apparent intensification of China’s crackdown on groups of fleeing North Koreans hoping to traverse China undetected and seek asylum in a third country. China has apprehended at least 49 North Koreans in the three months between July and September. This is a jump from 51 people Human Rights Watch identified as being detained over the entire 12-month period between July 2016 and June 2017.

North Korean refugees and their families overseas deserve international support. Governments around the world and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should call on China to stop sending North Koreans back across the border to face torture, forced labor, sexual abuse, and worse. Beijing should either take responsibility as a party to the Refugee Convention and offer them asylum or allow them to go to other countries willing to take them. But China needs to stop blocking the flight of desperate North Koreans who simply want a life free of fear.

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