Friday, February 29, 2008

Millions earmarked for North Korean refugees tied up in US Congress

The North Korean Human Rights Act passed in 2004 authorized the use of US$24 million (€16.5 million) to improve human rights in North Korea and help refugees. But none of that money has been appropriated, or approved, yet by the U.S. Congress for release, Christian Whiton, deputy to the U.S. special envoy on human rights in North Korea, said.

Hundreds of North Koreans flee starvation, economic and political repression every year, hoping to find refuge in a third country. Many escape into China and take a long and risky land journey through the jungles of neighboring Laos and into Thailand, while others try to cross the Gobi desert into Mongolia.

China treats North Korean defectors as economic migrants and forcibly repatriates many of those it finds, to almost certain incarceration, torture and possible execution. Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, China's police are stepping up surveillance along the border with North Korea and cracking down on refugee shelters, said Tim Peters, founder of the private group Helping Hands North Korea.

"When you're putting on a huge festival like the Olympics, the last thing China wants is a public relations nightmare such as North Korean refugees showing up at inopportune times," Peters said at the lecture. He called for China to abide by its international obligations and treat North Koreans as refugees, not as illegal migrants.

Peters - whose organization escorts refugees across borders to find asylum in third countries - said the crackdown was forcing refugees to abandon urban safehouses for more rural ones, and that some of these were as basic as a simple hole in the ground where a North Korean may live for up to a year, waiting for the right moment to flee.

[Excerpt of an article by Cassie Biggs, Associated Press]