Migration has long been one of the defining features of human history. From the bands of hunter-gatherers that roamed enormous distances 40,000 years ago to the vast nomadic empires of the ancient world, humanity has been in constant flux. But with the emergence of the Westphalian state system in the 17th century – a system used to this day – this ebb and flow of humanity began to be regulated by concepts such as territorial integrity and political self-determination.
Today’s patchwork of states, borders and passport controls evidence Westphalia’s triumph. There is one place, however, where its concepts have been taken to extremes – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Here, self-determination can be read as isolation and closed borders are just that, closed. But this is not to say that its citizens do not try to leave. For a few, escape is possible, but what awaits them in a world of similarly sealed borders?
Emerging from the chaos of World War Two, the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention was engineered to better manage relocations of humanity through setting the legal criterion for defining refugees, their rights, and the obligations of states. But as with many international treaties, the Convention is now seen as an anachronistic creation of its time; with its ambiguous wordings routinely leaving it open to differing interpretations.
For instance, its definition of a refugee as someone who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted…is outside the country of his nationality and is unable…to avail himself of the protection of that country”, has routinely left the notion of persecution open to differing interpretations. Unable to cope with the dramatic rise in the global refugee population that accompanied the end of the Cold War, ambiguity quickly became the Convention’s Achilles heel.
Yet, despite protests from critics of asylum, the Convention was never intended to be a burden-sharing treaty amongst nations. Wealthy western countries were generally deemed more tolerant and more able to provide for refugees than other states. Accordingly, the UK was expected to admit a greater share of refugees – though few would have envisaged today’s global refugee population of 40 million.
Nonetheless, British public attitudes towards immigration have never been particularly positive, fuelled in no small part by elements of Britain’s media and their iniquitous reporting of refugees or asylum systems in “crisis” or “collapse”. Successive governments have not been without blame, however, with many more than willing to appease their electorate with promises of tighter border controls.
Whilst North Korea may rarely be mentioned within this national debate, its escapees have suffered under Britain’s anti-immigration discourse. As we have recently seen, North Korea truly is a state like no other. Famine, human rights abuses, outlandish propaganda and an astonishingly penetrative state leads many of its citizens to harbour dreams of escaping the country.
But if travel is meant to broaden the mind, the hazardous passage of asylum also has the potential to destroy it. The permanent closure of the inter-Korean border has meant that North Korean refugees must first travel through China, throwing up a whole plethora of problems. In addition to the ubiquitous sufferings associated with human trafficking – such as women being driven into sex work or children pressed into forced labour – for many North Koreans the Chinese government’s interpretation of the Refugee Convention has presented the greatest hazard.
Close ties between Beijing and Pyongyang had long granted Kim Jong-il the emperor’s ear on certain issues, with migration being just one. As a result, Beijing classifies North Korean defectors not as refugees, but as ‘economic migrants’, meaning that they are not party to the protections of the UN Convention. Under Chinese law these ‘economic migrants’ are then forcibly repatriated back into the DPRK, where, upon arrival, they face anything from an indefinite prison sentence to execution.
For those refugees who do eventually reach the promised land of South Korea and claim asylum, the journey could have taken up to a decade.
Initially, refugees are enrolled into a governmental rehabilitation programme that schools them in the habits of ‘modern’ life: from its technologies and democratic politics to how to open a bank account and rent an apartment. But despite this well intentioned, intensive, and costly process that aims to bridge the leap between the two Koreas, invariably, life is still exceedingly difficult for North Koreans living in South Korea. As a recent International Crisis Group report concluded, North Korean refugees living in the ROK are increasingly finding themselves to be “strangers at home”.
For instance, despite being a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world, South Korea’s mental health system is surprisingly incapable of coping with the acute traumas that accompany many defectors. Similarly, South Korea’s healthcare system – which has the third lowest rate of investment among OECD countries – is also unable to offer the long-term support that refugees require. On top of such problems, refugees face a fifty-percent unemployment rate, increasing levels of prejudice in society and poor prospects for their futures.
For some, this has been the catalyst to leave the Korean peninsula altogether – and it may be a surprise to learn that many choose Britain as their country of asylum. According to recent statistics from the United Nations Head Commissioner for Refugees, 581 North Korean asylum seekers resided in the UK in 2010, which, by way of comparison, is four times greater than the intake of Germany, which came second to Britain. But why do North Koreans choose the UK?
Darren Southcott, a journalist who has interviewed North Korean refugees living in the UK, sees two issues as decisive for defectors claiming asylum. “One main factor is their difficulty in adapting to life in [South] Korea. It has been widely documented how the cultural differences are far beyond what they expected and this leads to discrimination. Socially and economically they face more discrimination and worse working conditions than other migrant groups, such as from South East Asia”.
Secondly, “many [defectors] say that by coming to the UK they can leave behind North Korea and start again, as people are completely unaware of their origins. It makes adaption easier, although this may go against what would intuitively be expected” said Southcott.
Also, Britain is “viewed favourably as a liberal society that provides a high level of welfare to refugees…this is clearly a factor in increasing numbers coming to the UK”.
To be sure, the UK is a far cry from the problems that defectors face on both sides of the Korean peninsula. The provision of accommodation, healthcare, education and a weekly payment of £42 may be basic, but it exceeds what they have received elsewhere. However, as has seemingly always been the case for North Korean refugees, new problems have surfaced.
With cuts of 62% to the Refugee Council – the UK’s foremost refugee and asylum charity – alongside the termination of the government’s Refugee Integration and Employment Service in September, 2011, asylum seekers are unlikely to receive help with their applications. For North Korean refugees this absence of statutory funding has been especially difficult, with many now reliant on charitable organisations for support, such as North Korea & Beyond.
Furthermore, recent measures introduced by the UK government that seek to distinguish North Koreans from so-called South Korean ‘imposters’, have prevented many refugees from gaining entry to the UK. An agreement between the governments of the UK and South Korea now allows the UK Border Agency to cross-check the fingerprints of Korean migrants, flagging those who are citizens of South Korea, and leading to numerous deportations.
For some this may appear reasonable, but one must bear in mind that South Korean citizenship is automatically granted to nearly every North Korean under Article Three of the ROK’s ‘Nationality Act’. So for the UK to refuse entry to these refugees, simply because South Korea was their initial port of call, fails to tally with the moral duty of the Refugee Convention.
So, what next for Britain’s North Koreans? In the current climate of public spending cuts, conservative revivals and rising anti-immigration rhetoric, their prospects seem unlikely to improve. The psychological suffering, abuse and fear that many endured does not, unfortunately, register on society’s radar. Consequently, hope for North Korea’s refugees remains on the Korean peninsula, where efforts are slowly being made to reform the ROK’s refugee system. But reform looks to be a tall order, and until then the suffering for North Koreans – wherever they are – looks set to continue.