Sunday, May 07, 2006

First North Koreans granted official refugee status

Six refugees from North Korea, including four women who say they were victims of sexual slavery or forced marriages, have fled to the United States.

The group is the first from North Korea to be given official refugee status since passage of a 2004 law that makes it easier for North Koreans to apply for such status.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, said the six refugees arrived at an undisclosed U.S. location Friday night from a Southeast Asian nation.

"This is a great act of compassion by the United States and the other countries involved," said Brownback, a co-sponsor of the law. He said that the refugees' arrival in the United States showed "the act is working" by making the refugees' human rights a part of U.S. policy toward the North.

In 2004, Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, part of which specified that the State Department would make it easier for North Koreans to try for refugee status in the United States.

North Korea long has been accused of torture, public executions and other atrocities against its people. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are believed to be held in prison camps for political reasons, the State Department said in a report last year.

Human rights activists have said that U.S. Embassy workers in Asian countries have refused to help North Korean refugees.

Last year, Timothy Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea, told lawmakers at a hearing that U.S. Embassy officials in Beijing rebuffed him when he tried to arrange help for a 17-year-old North Korean refugee.

"I thought to myself, 'Is this the State Department's implementation of the North Korean Human Rights Act?"' he said.

[Associated Press]

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