As my fellow Pajamas blogger Ron Rosenbaum notes, China’s murder of Tibetan protesters and persecution of its own human rights activists provide reasons enough to boycott “the billion dollar fascist spectacle” that will be the Beijing Olympics. There are plenty of other reasons as well, and among them is China’s abuse of refugees from North Korea — horrific at the best of times, this has become even worse as China prepares to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. It seems that in the eyes of China’s rulers, desperate North Korean refugees — asking nothing more than to be allowed safe passage to asylum elsewhere — are one more item on the list of inconveniences to be swept out of sight, lest their plight interfere with the Olympic festivities this August.
Specifically, there are 17 North Korean refugees whom Beijing right now is treating as bargaining chips in a bid to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of others stay out of the way. The 17 refugees in question are lucky enough to be among the few whom the UN refugee agency, or UNHCR, has actually been trying to help. Reportedly, these 17 North Korean refugees are right now under the protection of the UNHCR office in Beijing — all waiting to leave for asylum in a third country. Some have been waiting since late 2006. The problem is not one of finding a place for them to go; if they can get to South Korea, they have automatic citizenship there. No — the problem is that to move on to asylum in a third country, they need exit visas from China. Reportedly, the Chinese government is withholding those exit visas, unless the UNHCR agrees not to help any more North Korean asylum seekers until after Olympics.
According to a letter dated March 18, signed by a bi-partisan group of U.S. legislators and addressed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, China is haggling with the UNHCR over terms for allowing the 17 refugees under its protection to leave the country. (You can read the full text of the letter here; signed by Senators Tom Coburn and Sam Brownback, and Representatives Ed Royce, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Joseph Pitts, Sander Levin, Diane Watson and Frank Wolf).
Referring to the 17 refugees under UNHCR protection but trapped without exit visas in China, the letter states: “We understand that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is refusing them exit visas unless the UNHCR agrees not to process any more asylum seekers until after the Beijing Olympics. We also understand that UNHCR has been unable to bring refugees into protection since July 2007 because of this policy.”
The letter also quotes a finding from the most recent annual report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, that: “During the past one to two years, the Chinese government has intensified its efforts to forcibly repatriate North Korea refugees, in part as a security preparation for the 2008 Olympic games.”
In the letter, these members of Congress urge Ban Ki-Moon to call upon China to issue the exit visas. They also remind Ban of China’s longstanding practice when it catches North Korean refugees of shunting them back where they came from. This is a flagrant violation of the UN Convention on refugees, which China has signed. For North Koreans, being sent back from China can mean condemnation to the labor camps of Kim Jong Il, where it is common practice to starve, torture or work the prisoners to death. In some cases, the attempt to escape North Korea can lead directly to a death sentence — for a recent account, see this bulletin released just last week, alleging that North Korea has just executed another 15 citizens for trying to escape into China, or help others escape, in search of food.
In the face of this hideous inhumanity, the UNHCR has for many years pursued a craven policy of “quiet diplomacy” — helping a trickle of North Korean refugees, but largely kow-towing to China’s wishes that the vast majority of asylum-seekers be ignored, lest even more North Koreans decide to risk their lives in order to escape from what is arguably the world’s most cruelly repressive regime. That even this trickle accepted by the UNHCR would now be imperiled in order to clear the roads of China for the Olympic torch is reason enough, all by itself, to steer clear of the Beijing Olympics altogether.