UN asks China not to send 7 North Korean refugees back home

The U.N. is asking Beijing not to repatriate seven detained refugees from North Korea who escapee rights groups say would face severe retribution from the government if returned to their home country.

In a letter to the Chinese government, the U.N. human rights officials also ask for information about the detainees, one of whom is reportedly in poor health, and the charges they face, their legal status and the measures Chinese authorities are taking to protect them.

Although the Chinese government has pledged to adhere to the U.N. convention forbidding countries to return refugees to their home countries if they will face serious threats to their life or freedom, Beijing claims it must return North Koreans found to be illegally within Chinese territory under two bilateral border and immigration pacts.

“We are concerned that these seven refugees are facing the risk of forcible repatriation in violation of the principle of non-refoulement. We are also concerned about the information that [name redacted] health condition is not good,” the letter stated.

It was signed by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights, and Nils Meltzer, the special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The letter was dated Feb. 15 and released by the U.N. on March 11. The names of the detainees and the places of their arrests were obscured to protect their identities.

The two U.N. officials emphasized that there were multiple appeals to the Chinese government to prevent the repatriation of North Korean refugees in China. Forced repatriations endanger people’s lives and can destroy families, they said in the letter.

Deporting the seven refugees would be a clear violation of international law, Su Bo Bae of the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, told RFA.

She said that North Korean refugees returned home have been tortured and sexually assaulted, although there is some indication the government may be moving away from relying on violence as a means of punishment in these cases.

“There was a guidance that came down from the top telling the Security Department, the Ministry of Security, or the officials in each detention facility not to torture or beat the repatriated people. Perhaps that’s why the most recent testimonies regarding serious human rights violations, such as forced abortions and infanticide, are decreasing,” Su said.

The issue of North Korean refugees in China is a wide-ranging international problem, not just concerning China, North Korea and South Korea, said Kim Youngja, director general of the Seoul-based Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.

“The South Korean government must tell the Chinese government that it intends to protect North Korean refugees in China in any positive way,” Kim said. “The international community, including the United Nations, should actively speak up and not let the attention fade.”

Last month’s letter echoes one U.N. rights officials sent to the Chinese government in August asking them to provide information on at least 1,170 North Korean refugees known at that time to have been detained in China. They feared that those refugees were facing the risk of forcible repatriation.

The Chinese government replied in September, arguing that the “principle of non-refoulement” did not apply to these cases because the persons were illegal immigrants and not refugees.

RFA reported in July 2021 that 50 North Koreans were loaded onto buses in the Chinese border city of Dandong and taken across the Yalu River. Sources said Chinese onlookers were hostile to the police, warning that they were effectively sending the refugees to their deaths.

Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans fled to China to escape a mid-1990s famine, with about 30,000 making their way to South Korea. As many as 60,000 North Koreans remain in China, despite having no legal status. Some have married Chinese nationals.

RFA reported in August that police had begun actively arresting North Korean spouses of Chinese nationals after a long period of time during which they were treated leniently.

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