North Korean refugees are finding their way to Southeast Asia and Thailand has become a popular transit country and safe haven for defectors by not deporting them home.
According to the Thai police, the number of North Koreans arrested for illegal entry in Thailand has surged to more than 400 compared to 50 last year. BesidesThailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are the other destinations for the refugees but once caught, they would be send back to China and from there, shipped back to North Korea. Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that does not force them back, an approach that activists desperately hope stays in place.
“North Koreans defect to China first. But if they are caught, the risk of being deported back to North Korea is 100%”, says Prof. Lee, head of an NGO for North Korean defectors in Japan.
Earlier this week, the plight of seven North Korean refugees was revealed when they surrendered to police in Nong Khai, northeast Thailand. “We are a group of seven North Korean women who have defected from North Korea, risking our lives in a desperate bid for freedom rather than to wait in passive resignation for either starvation or imprisonment in our homeland. We arrived in Thailand today after a perilous trek of thousands of kilometers through China and Laos where our lives and freedom were in jeopardy at every turn.”
In Thailand, defectors are placed under police protection and transferred to the immigration bureau in Bangkok where they await resettlement in South Korea with the assistance of the United Nations. According to a Tokyo-based NGO, North Koreans seek refuge in accordance to international law, “article 31 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which prohibits, among other things, imposing penalties on refugees on account of their illegal entry.”
While displaying sympathy towards the asylum seekers, Thailand has no policy of welcoming North Koreans and fears that that attention on the issue would cause ‘diplomatic tensions’ with the North Korea government. Thailand has more than 30 years of diplomatic ties with Pyongyang since 1975.
To ameliorate the refugee problems, Thai officials have increased the number of border patrols and deployed more police officers along the Mekong River to stop North Koreans from entering illegally. “My job is to prevent North Koreans from coming to Thailand. But if they come, I have to look after them and give them food, clothing and medical care,” says a police officer.
Thousands of North Koreans face hunger and repression in their county forcing them to flee the country through long and risky land journey through China to arrive in Southeast Asian countries with the help of vast networks of Chinese, Laotian and Thai gangs.
Thai town on path to freedom for North Koreans (Straits Times, 20 September 2006)
Smuggling N Koreans to safety (BBC News, 19 September 2006)
Seven North Korean refugees surrender to police in northeastern Thailand (International Herald Tribune, 18 September 2006)
North Korea women arrested in Nong Khai (The Nation, 18 September 2006)