Why China Must Protect Detained North Koreans

China must protect 15 North Koreans held in Chinese detention, rather than deport them back to North Korea, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

Deported North Koreans risk facing detention in labour camps, sexual violence, torture, and death upon their return, prompting HRW to advise China to grant them asylum or freedom to go to a third country.

Phil Robertson of HRW demanded that China “recognise that sending these 15 North Koreans back to their country means condemning them to suffer horrific rights violations, and immediately halt any effort to send them back into harm’s way,” a fact corroborated by North Korean escapees who maintain that those repatriated face incarceration in camps, or even execution.

Both political and labour camps are defined by systematic abuse and inferior conditions; which include exposure to physical and sexual violence, lack of medical care, starvation, absence of appropriate clothes and housing, and execution.

HRW reported that at least three of the detainees at the Tumen immigration detention facility are children.

The North Koreans are frequently labelled as illegal economic migrants by China, who repatriate them to North Korea in accordance with a 1986 bilateral border protocol. This act of forcibly removing refugees back to their country constitutes refoulement, which is prohibited by the international treaties to which China is a party.

Neither the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, nor the 1984 Convention Against Torture accept the forced deportation of refugees if it means they would be placed at great risk of torture or persecution.

In 2014, a UN Commission of Inquiry into North Korean human rights found that crimes against humanity (including enslavement, torture, and execution) are routinely perpetrated against prisoners and those deported from China.

HRW has called on China to “demonstrate to the UN and governments around the world that it will no longer be complicit with the North Korean government’s rights violations against its own people.”

Phoebe Egoroff

Founder and of Jurist International, a website focusing on the latest developments in international human rights and criminal law.