China Reportedly Suspends Deportation of North Korean Refugees

Japan’s Daily Yomiuri is reporting that, in accordance with a request from the South Korean government, China has suspended deportation of North Korean defectors. The newspaper cites diplomatic sources that China’s actions are intended to show displeasure with North Korea’s recent long-range missile launch.

In the past, defectors have been repatriated, likely because the Chinese government was consderned about regional stability: accepting refugees from North Korea could embarrass that country’s government (Beijing’s ally) and potentially create further turmoil.

In my opinion, the suspension of deportations is good news, but the treatment of North Korean defectors should not turn on political winds. Many of them qualify as refugees under international law. A refugee is legally defined in the Refugee Convention as a person who has fled his or her country because of actual persecution or “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted” is unwilling to return to his or her country. The actual or threatened persecution must be on the because of an enumerated ground–race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

China is one of the few countries in Asia to have signed the Refugee Convention. Parties to the Convention have an obligation to abide by the principle of “non-refoulement,” which means that “No contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.

In practice, a country that has signed the treaty is supposed to make individual determinations regarding whether a person unwilling to return to his or her country is a refugee and is supposed to give the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to the asylum-seekers. But the Chinese government has not responded to some UNHCR requests for access to the potential refugees crossing into the country.

The Chinese government has no domestic legislation or procedures relating to refugee status determinations. While the government’s geopolitical concerns need to be addressed, China can best promote stability by living up to its international obligations under the Refugee Convention and by applying diplomatic pressure on North Korea to live up to minimum international standards of conduct.

China’s National People’s Congress is currently considering a draft Law on Exit and Entry Administration. The draft should include provisions to align domestic law with China’s international obligations.

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