This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Five North Koreans in Chinese government custody would face grave danger if they are sent back to the North, said a United Nations appeal made public Wednesday that urged Beijing to uphold its U.N. member obligations against returning refugees to places they might be harmed.
Issued on Oct. 27, the urgent appeal by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in (North Korea), and the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, had been kept confidential for a 60-day period to allow China to respond. Beijing has yet to reply, the U.N. said.
The appeal listed the five detainees as a 49-year-old woman, a 48-year-old man, a 14-year-old girl, a six-months-pregnant woman of unknown name and another unidentified woman. The names, birthdates and place of origin of the first three were initially redacted in the released document.
The five refugees left Shenyang, a city about 130 miles from the Sino-Korean border, on Sept. 12. On Sep. 13, police in Shandong province, about 440 miles away, arrested them at a motorway service area and they were detained at the police station in Qingdao, the report said.
“While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of these allegations, we wish to express serious concern about the reported arrest and detention of the above mentioned individuals,” the appeal said.
“We are seriously concerned that according to the information made available, the five persons imminently face forcible repatriation in violation of the principle of non refoulement codified in article 3 of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT),” it said.
The UN agencies said that if Beijing were to repatriate the five, “the individuals would be at risk of arrest for the legitimate exercise of their rights to leave the country and to seek asylum, which thus would render arbitrary their detention by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
“This practice puts people’s lives at risk, breaks their family ties, and aggravates the already dire situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
The appeal listed international legal provisions on non refoulement and requested a timely response from the Chinese government. Non refoulement is a legal principle that holds that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and other harm.
The status of the five escapees is unknown according to the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the North, Tomás Ojea Quintana.
Quintana told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday that China did not respond to the appeal on the five detainees.
“The usual reply from China has to do with their policy to consider these people illegal migrants, and you know that that has been the consistent response. But on this specific case, I don’t have a response from the government on what happened,” Quintana said.
He also said that he was unaware of any acknowledgment of the case by the South Korean government other than a vaguely worded affirmation of commitment to helping “defectors” in the border area with China.
Quintana said he had plans to visit South Korea in February to discuss North Korean refugees in China, but these depend on the coronavirus situation.
He called any decision by Beijing to repatriate North Korean refugees an infringement of their obligation to uphold non refoulement principles.
“You cannot repatriate someone, in any part of the world, if that person is going to be ill-treated when repatriated, and that’s an obligation of the government of China, despite the fact that they continue to affirm that they consider them illegal migrants,” Quintana said.
China, which along with North Korea is one of only a handful of one-party communist regimes in the world, has propped up the North for decades with economic aid and shielded it from diplomatic pressure. But tens of thousands of North Korean escapees have used China as a gateway to third countries and on to South Korea.
Quintana also said that South Korea has a legal obligation to help these people.
“The South Korean government knows that these North Korean people, according to the constitution of South Korea, are considered also citizens of South Korea and therefore they deserve protection. And I continue to encourage South Korea to put all their efforts on the ground, especially in the border area in China,” he said.
“South Korea should try to impede that [repatriation] happens because these are people that should be considered also as South Korean.”
RFA previously reported that since the closure of Sino-Korean border in January due to the coronavirus, repatriations of refugees detained in China have been suspended.
Escapes to South Korea have also slowed since the onset of the pandemic with Seoul welcoming fewer than 200 North Korean refugees in 2020 through September according to the Ministry of Unification.
Since 2001, Seoul has welcomed more than 1,000 North Korean refugees each year, with totals reaching higher than 2,500 per year between 2007 and 2011.