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Fact Finding in Thailand

International Mission

Read the ommittee's full report

One NK couple's experience of compassion in Thailand

From February 25 to March 1 of this year, Life Funds for North Korean Refugees was part of an international fact-finding mission to Thailand, the purpose of which was to ascertain the current situation of North Korean refugees in Thailand. To this end, we met with the Bangkok office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the immigration police at Maesai (near the Laos/Thai/Myanmar border), and Thai human rights lawyers, as well as North Korean defectors and some of the activists assisting them in Thailand.


The North Korean refugees we spoke with related experiences that have become all too common among defectors: starvation, separation from family, gang rape and forced “marriage” in China, constant fear of arrest by Chinese police and of repatriation to face imprisonment or death. One of the refugees we met with also told us that she had had no intention of escaping to China, but was deceived and sold into “marriage” to a Chinese villager by an old woman who had promised to help her find food in China.

The emotional trauma suffered by the defectors was evident to us even during our relatively short meeting. One of the human rights workers who visits the Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok to counsel defectors told us that the combination of an upbringing in the North Korean system and the trauma experienced as a refugee meant that one of the most important things for a defector’s emotional rehabilitation was the regaining of his or her humanity. It is clear that counselling is a vital service for North Korean defectors both in Thailand and upon arrival in their destination country.

The Nation, Feb 26, 2007 --
"During the first two months of this year, the South Korean government admitted 140 North Korean asylum seekers arriving from Thailand...."
Read the entire story here

On the whole, we were impressed with the attitude of the Thai authorities toward North Korean refugees. According to the UNHCR office, the basic policy of the Thai government has been to not repatriate North Korean asylum-seekers. We find this to be a most welcome development, and one that indicates leadership on the part of the Thai government.

One area of concern is the apparent lack of communication between the Thai government and the UNHCR on the one hand, and the government and police on the other. The failure to adequately communicate Thai government policy to and among the various police forces (regular, tourist, and immigration) means that, for example, North Korean asylum-seekers who have been recognized as such are incarcerated by the regular police, who fail to recognize their refugee status. One human-rights worker also told us about cases of regular police bursting into safe houses and arresting asylum-seekers who were then unable to return, in contrast to the past.

Another area of concern is the severe overcrowding in the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in Bangkok, where, according to human rights workers and the Maesai border police, close to 350 refugees are being held in a facility with a maximum capacity of 130. We were unable to inspect the IDC on this occasion because visiting privileges had been temporarily revoked as punishment for fighting that broke out due to overcrowding. However, reports indicate that in addition to suffering psychological distress as a result of crowding, refugees also have insufficient toilet facilities and sleeping space.

There seems little doubt that the overcrowding is partially attributable to the rising numbers of North Korean asylum-seekers; nearly as many North Korean refugees were processed by the Maesai immigration centre in the first two months of this year as in all of 2005. However, the Thai government’s policy of arresting all North Korean refugees is undoubtedly exacerbating conditions in the IDC.

The ostensible reason for this change in policy is that, lacking proper documents, the identification of North Korean refugees cannot be immediately verified. The Maesai immigration police also emphasized that this policy was applied uniformly to all refugees, not just to those from North Korea. The UNHCR representative we met with speculated that the Thai government might be trying to send a message to potential asylum-seekers that Thailand will become more difficult as a transit country. If this is so, it is cause for concern, especially as North Koreans typically do not remain in Thailand for any length of time, but continue on to South Korea or the U.S.

One concern expressed by the Maesai border police was that they were constantly over budget due to the increasing numbers of North Korean refugees.

The police in Maesai welcome donations to cover the cost of food for the NK refugees. Feeding one person costs 45 baht (US $1.50) per day.

Feed a North Korean Refugee? Cick the Donate button.

According to the official we spoke with, the police are committed to providing detainees with the same level of care regardless of their numbers, but the cost of food, health care, translators, and transportation to Bangkok consistently exceeds their budget.

Language has also proved to be a stumbling block; the border police have been relying for translation on people working in the area who are conversant in both Thai and Korean. However, there has thus far been no professional interpreter consistently available to facilitate communication with the border police and during court hearings.

Overall, the Maesai immigration police impressed us as having carefully considered the refugees’ situation and how best to proceed from a humanitarian point of view. The official we spoke with emphasized that this attitude was the “Thai people’s way of thinking,” which we find especially encouraging. We hope that we will be able to rely on Thailand’s continuing humanitarian treatment of asylum-seekers crossing its borders.

A South Korean human rights worker related an incident in which she took a taxi in Bangkok with the two North Korean women we interviewed. When the taxi driver asked where they were from, and they answered that they were Korean, he asked if they were from the North. They answered that they were South Korean, at which the driver expressed relief—“because the North Koreans are bad; they’re bullies and they conduct nuclear tests.”

The activist asked him what he would have said if they had told him they were North Korean.

He replied, “I wouldn’t have even talked to you, much less let you in my taxi.”

This conversation reminds us that people still often fail to distinguish between the North Korean regime and the North Korean people. Clearly, we still have much work to do raising awareness about the situation of ordinary North Koreans.

Although North Korean refugees are the main focus of our group's work, one of the defectors reminded us of the longer-term view. When asked what advice she would give to North Koreans considering escape, she said that she could not recommend that people leave North Korea. "Rather," she said, “I want my country to become a place where it is possible to live in dignity, like a human being.”

Memorial shot together with Maisai Immigration vice director and members of Fact Finding Mission in front of Maisai
Immigration Police Building.


Two North Korean women difectors are interviewed by the Fact Finding Mission before going to ask the protection to Korean Embassy in Bangkok

Participants continued informal discussions over dinner.