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      The UNHCR and the desperate plight of North Korean refugees

      Following is an excerpt of a Korean Herald article touching on the increasingly desperate plight of North Korean refugees who have fled to China, as far as getting assistance from the U.N. refugee agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR :

      The plight of North Korea's refugees is increasingly desperate as China steps up a "strike-hard" campaign to crack down on refugees in the border area between China and North Korea, says Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea.

      Peters, who is part of the Underground Railroad that gives refugees passage to a third country, says his job is becoming more difficult. Previously, North Koreans escaping famine and political repression were able to hide out in shelters on the border, but now these safe houses are disappearing.

      The North Korean Human Rights Act offered hope of getting people in such a predicament to safety. Peters says that while the act was a good "symbolic gesture," it has little effect.

      In theory, the act makes it easier for North Koreans to enter the United States as refugees, but Peters said when he has taken urgent cases to U.S. Embassies, he has been turned away.

      When he took a "17-year-old North Korean girl who lost her father to a firing squad, her mother to the gulag and her sister to a Chinese police sweep," he felt her case was urgent because she could be picked up by a human trafficker. He approached a U.S. Embassy but was "startled by the response of one of the political officers of the embassy" who told him that there was nothing he could do.

      This is just one of many cases Peters has dealt with.

      He said the embassies don't want to get involved for fear of causing problems with the host country. Also, the bigger picture of maintaining good diplomatic relations with China is given a higher priority.

      The purpose of the [U.N. refugee agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR] is to protect displaced persons under the agreements of the 1951 U.N. Convention and 1967 Protocol on refugees.

      The U.N. refugee agency, [UNHCR] has an office in Beijing, but Peters says that they are also are unwilling to help him get North Koreans to a third country. He mentioned another case where someone who had legitimate reason to believe that his life was in danger "fell through the bureaucratic cracks" between the UNHCR and the U.S. Embassy.

      Under this international law, fleeing North Koreans are considered refugees, but China - even though it is a signatory of the U.N. human rights declaration - sends them back to North Korea on the basis of them being illegal "economic migrants."

      There are many others who are critical of the UNHCR`s handling of North Korean refugees. In a February 2005 editorial for the Wall Street Journal, Claudia Rosett wrote:

      "The true horror is the way in which the well-mannered nuances of U.N. bureaucracy, structure and management have combined to dismiss demurely the desperate needs of hundreds of thousands of human beings fleeing famine and repression in the world's worst totalitarian state."

      The UNHCR spokesperson in Geneva, Ron Redmond, said on CNN that the UNHCR has had its hands tied by China and for years has been a "voice in the wilderness."

      Peters says that the UNHCR should make a "conspicuous departure rather than maintain a passive presence" and should make it an international issue.

      The UNHCR`s seemingly passive stance toward China has been defended as a method of "quiet diplomacy" that deals with the problem without stirring up fragile diplomatic relations with China.

      Peters says that the implication of "quiet diplomacy" is that the refugees are being taken care of, but Peters estimates that 200-300 North Koreans are being sent back across the border each week.

      He says, though, that the good news is that people are still getting across. With all the odds stacked against them, "it's a miracle that people can get through," he said.