The purpose of the UNHCR is to protect displaced persons under the agreements of the 1951 U.N. Convention and 1967 Protocol on refugees.
Under this international law, fleeing North Koreans are considered refugees, but China - even though it is a signatory of the U.N. human rights declaration - sends them back to North Korea on the basis of them being illegal "economic migrants."
There are many others who are critical of the UNHCR`s handling of North Korean refugees. In a February 2005 editorial for the Wall Street Journal, Claudia Rosett wrote:
"The true horror is the way in which the well-mannered nuances of U.N. bureaucracy, structure and management have combined to dismiss demurely the desperate needs of hundreds of thousands of human beings fleeing famine and repression in the world’s worst totalitarian state."
The UNHCR spokesperson in Geneva, Ron Redmond, said on CNN that the UNHCR has had its hands tied by China and for years has been a "voice in the wilderness."
Tim Peters says that the UNHCR should make a "conspicuous departure rather than maintain a passive presence" and should make it an international issue.
The UNHCR`s seemingly passive stance toward China has been defended as a method of "quiet diplomacy" that deals with the problem without stirring up fragile diplomatic relations with China.
Tim Peters says that the implication of "quiet diplomacy" is that the refugees are being taken care of, but Peters estimates that 200-300 North Koreans are being sent back across the border each week.
He says, though, that the good news is that people are still getting across. With all the odds stacked against them, "it’s a miracle that people can get through," he said.
[Excerpt of an article in the Korean Herald, by Claudia Rosett, Jane Cooper]