This falls into that remarkable if true category: China has wired every house in a town near its border with North Korea to a local police station so residents can send a secret alarm in the event a defector from North Korea turning up, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoting ethnic Koreans in China. There are plans to expand the system to other towns, Yonhap says. There are reports that in recent weeks increasing numbers of North Koreans have been slipping across the border in search of food. They have been turning up in the middle of the night at homes on the Chinese side begging to be fed.
China has tightened its policing in border areas since South Korea criticized its repatriation of dozens of North Korean refugees in February and again this month. China says they are economic migrants and not political refugees, thus can be returned home. Seoul, along with the UN High Commission on Refugees and human rights groups like Amnesty International, have called on China to reverse its policy, saying that returned defectors reportedly face severe punishment.
Nearly 11,700 Chinese sought asylum in the U.S, Europe and other industrialized countries in the first half of this year, 15% more than in the same period of 2010, and the highest half-yearly figure since the second half of 2003, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHNCR). China accounted for the second largest group of asylum seekers to industrialized countries after Afghanistan, or 6% of the total.
Two thirds of the asylum seekers from China applied for refuge in the U.S. They accounted for roughy one quarter of the 36,400 applications for asylum lodged in the U.S., constituting the largest national group of would-be refugees. France was the second favorite destination of asylum seekers from China with Canada the third, followed by Australia and the U.K. Asylum applications to Australia were down following Canberra’s tightening of its asylum laws.
Elsewhere, asylum seekers from China have been on the rise, with 20,297 seeking refuge in industrialized countries in 2009 and 21,567 in 2010. This year is on pace to hit the 25,000 mark. While that would not a huge number in relation to China’s immense population, the steady increase in would-be refugees is notable even given the fact that China has historically been one of leading sources of asylum seekers. (We should note that the UNHCR counts asylum applicants and not those who are granted refugee status. Many are turned down and returned to their country of origin. We should also note that the UNHCR reckons that four out of five if all refugees worldwide end up not in industrialized countries but in developing ones.)
The UNHCR report is a statistical compilation and provides little commentary to explain the increase in those seeking refugee status beyond noting that in the first half of 2011 there was a 17% increase in the overall number of individuals requesting refugee status in the 44 industrialized countries monitored as compared to the first half of 2010. It notes that “there have been major forced displacement crises in West, North and East Africa,” but these shouldn’t have affected the Chinese numbers.
Our eye was caught by a report in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo that increasing numbers of North Korean defectors are turning up in Thailand after fleeing the Stalinist state and making a dangerous clandestine journey across China and Laos. The paper quotes Thai immigration authorities as saying that they took more than 1,000 North Korean asylum seekers into custody last year, compared to fewer than 400 the year before, and expect the numbers to grow this year. Unlike China and Laos, Thailand does not repatriate North Korean refugees but seeks to settle them in a third-country. To put that number in to context, a new book on North Korean defectors estimates that some 15,000 have left the country since the end of the Korean War (1953), with the majority leaving in the past 10 years.
China has been taking a harder line on returning North Korean defectors since late 2008. After the arrests in North Korea last year of two American TV journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, authorities raided safe houses in China used by North Korean defectors and deported a South Korean Christian activist who helped them, part of a network that is said to have smuggled hundreds of defectors out of North Korea. We have also heard reports from Japan of several asylum seekers who have taken sanctuary in Japanese and South Korean diplomatic missions in China being prevented from leaving the country as they once would have been allowed to do.