For months, North Koreans living in South Korea who have relatives detained in China have been imploring government officials, foreign diplomats, United Nations agencies, and others for help. They hope international pressure can dissuade Chinese authorities from forcibly returning their relatives and other refugees to North Korea.
Concerns among relatives spiked last week when Chinese authorities forcibly returned nearly 50 North Korean refugees who now face torture, imprisonment, sexual violence, and forced labor. The North Korean government reopened its borders on July 14 after closing them in early 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, increasing the risk of forced repatriation. The families’ fears have grown as North Korean authorities are reportedly inflicting more severe punishments on anybody trying to escape the country.
The nearly 50 returned refugees are the latest victims of Beijing’s efforts to deter North Koreans from fleeing to China to escape horrific human rights conditions at home. Based on information from sources with local contacts, Human Rights Watch believes that the Chinese government is currently holding at least 1,170 North Koreans in detention. These include 450 North Korean men in a prison in Changchun, Jilin province serving sentences for alleged criminal activities, who will be deported after completing their sentences. There are also 325 North Korean refugees in Tumen city, 47 in Changbai county, 104 in Linjiang city in Jilin province, 180 in Dandong, and 64 in Shenyang in Liaoning province.
The Chinese government routinely labels North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” and forcibly repatriates them under a 1986 bilateral border protocol. But as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and the UN Convention against Torture, China is obligated not to force back anyone who would be at risk of persecution or torture upon return.
North Korean authorities consider departures from the country without permission a serious crime. Since anyone who returns to North Korea after fleeing will likely be tortured or otherwise mistreated, all have a claim for refugee status in whichever country they reach.
The Chinese government should provide asylum to North Koreans in China or give them safe passage to South Korea or another safe third country. It should allow the UN Refugee Agency to exercise its mandate and let them have access to the detained North Korean refugees.