October 25, 2006 11:19 pm

China ‘must stop hindering’ refugee flow

China must stop hindering the flow of North Koreans seeking to escape hunger and poverty in the world’s most isolated country, while other world powers should back up their tough resolutions with action, the International Crisis Group says in a report on the plight of North Korean refugees.

While international attention is on Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, the think-tank warns that a humanitarian challenge is looming as widespread food shortages are likely to propel more starving North Koreans into China, a country taking increasingly tough steps to stop border crossers.

“The plight of North Koreans seeking refuge in China from the deprivations they face back home is likely to get much worse until greater pressure is placed on China to adjust its practices,” the ICG said in the report released on Thursday. “Concerned governments must back up their words and resolutions with a greater commitment to recognise and accept North Korean refugees.”

Increasing numbers of North Koreans have been embarking on an uncertain journey through China that can last five days or five years, depending on their money, connections and luck.

About 9,000 North Koreans have made it to South Korea and a handful to other third countries, but tens of thousands remain in hiding in China, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. They live in fear of forcible repatriation to North Korea, where they face harsh punishment, including possible execution.

The problem is likely to worsen following this month’s nuclear test as hunger and poverty, rather than political oppression, are the main factors propelling North Koreans to leave, the ICG said.

North Korea was already facing the prospect of another famine after floods wiped out crops in July.

But humanitarian aid has all but stopped following the regime’s missile and nuclear tests, with the World Food Programme receiving only 8 per cent of its budget for North Korea this year.

In spite of their support for the United Nations Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Pyongyang, both Beijing and Seoul are reluctant to use pressure for fear of triggering an exodus of North Koreans or causing the regime to collapse. China has taken tough steps to stop North Koreans from entering the country. Missionaries and aid workers report that Beijing offers rewards as high as $400 (€320, £215) to those who turn in North Koreans and fines of up to $3,600 for those supporting them.

The think-tank called on Beijing to stop the forcible re­patriations, eliminate bounties, grant the UN High Commission for Refugees and NGO workers access to North Koreans in China, and devote greater resources to crack down on human trafficking. The group recommended South Korea should actively seek the release of South Korean citizens arrested in China for helping asylum seekers and clarify procedures for settling North Koreans.

The governments of the US, European Union and Japan could, meanwhile, press China, Laos and Vietnam not to deport or repatriate North Korean asylum seekers. “China should be nudged to move in the right direction by suggesting modest steps, particularly in light of the fact that as the 2008 Olympics nears, all eyes will be on its behaviour,” the ICG said.

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