January 04, 2010 08:49
An increasing number of North Korean refugees are arriving in northern Thailand, fleeing poverty and political oppression at home. Two North Koreans turn away as a group of journalists and refugee activists attempt to talk to them. They were spotted on the side of the road along Thailand's border with Laos. Several more ran as journalists approached.
Speaking in Chinese, one woman says they just arrived and asks where exactly they are, but she does not want to say where they came from or how they got here. "Don't ask this. So many things are not good to ask. We don't dare say," she said.
The refugees reach Thailand by crossing the Mekong River from Laos after a dangerous journey across China.
Thai immigration authorities say they took more than 1,000 North Koreans into custody in 2009, compared with less than 400 in 2008 when Beijing tightened security for the Olympics.
Police superintendent Sutham Chatarsa says they come to Thailand because, unlike in China and Laos, they will not be sent home, where they could face execution. "We don't have the policy to send them back to North Korea," he said. "We want to take care of them until they are accepted into a third country. It's not the same as people coming from Cambodia or Laos. North Koreans come here because of political problems. So, we want them to get to a third country."
Even so, the North Koreans are treated as illegal immigrants before being allowed to go to South Korea or another country. Lawmakers from 12 countries met in Thailand in November to raise attention to the plight of North Koreans fleeing their impoverished and repressive nation.
South Korean lawmaker Kim Yong-tae says they often face abuse because of their illegal status. "We need to cooperate with each other to pressure Chinese or the other country's governments to give them legal status. And second, we need to offer some conditions for them to sustain their livelihoods," said Kim Yong-tae.
Police at Chiangsaen question 14 North Koreans, including two children. Thai authorities say they expect the number of North Korean refugees to continue to grow in 2010 as more choose to take the dangerous journey to freedom.
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