Admitting North Korean Refugees: A Canadian Perspective


This is not exactly a direct response to Roberta Cohen’s excellent piece which was linked on CanKor a few days ago. As the Canadian situation is much different than the American one, it is impossible to respond directly to a different fact scenario. However, as many of the issues Roberta pointed out are salient in the Canadian context, these commonalities can certainly be a starting point for discussion on how to respond to the curious case of North Korean refugees.

As an advocate for North Korean refugees in the past, I can certainly comment on the situation in Canada and some of the challenges that have arisen since North Koreans magically started appearing en masse in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver in late 2005 and early 2006. These comments are my own, and do not reflect the opinions of HanVoice, an organization which I am still a part of. However, to balance this with another disclaimer, as a federal public servant working in the field of immigration enforcement, there is very little I can publicly comment on when it comes to our actual policies regarding North Koreans. The small suggestions I will make are my own and do not reflect the views of the government of Canada.

As a final disclaimer, many individuals who I’ve spoken to throughout the years and that I quote directly or indirectly will remain anonymous for a reason. Anyone who has worked in this field will understand why.

As I mentioned before, DPRK nationals arrived proverbially on Canadian shores circa 2005. Before this, according to Immigration and Refugee Board statistics, a grand total of four North Korean cases had been processed, the most famous being the one involving Song Dae Ri. Of course, when North Koreans started trickling into Toronto, this excited those of us who had just begun to work on human rights and refugee advocacy; an issue that seemed to be thousands of miles away from us had just proverbially landed on our doorstep!

And landed they did. Canadian asylum laws are some of the most open in the Western world, and more interestingly allow for in-land asylum claims as well. Therefore, almost anyone who reaches Canada is allowed to make a formal refugee claim. The North Koreans who arrived in Toronto seemed to know this fact very well. When asked to describe how they arrived in Canada, almost everyone had the same fundamental story: they followed a person on to a plane in China (usually Beijing), landed in Montreal or Toronto, where this same individual would handle all the customs and immigration business for them, and then proceed directly to the Citizenship and Immigration (CIC) office in Etobicoke. There, they would announce to the person at the duty desk that they were North Korean. The CIC office would then contact housing shelters, which then, in turn the shelters would take care of the claimant’s food and housing, and also find legal representation for the claimant as well.

Furthermore, as the Korean Canadian community became aware that North Koreans were arriving in Toronto, such organizations as HanVoice, churches, and other community groups began pitching in to assist North Koreans in their settlement here.

At first, the North Koreans here ran into a bit of a legal quandary in trying to prove that they were indeed genuine refugee claimants. First, they had no physical evidence that they had come from the DPRK in the first place. Such facts as their accents and their knowledge of certain facts regarding the DPRK were often used to test the veracity of their claim. Second, as South Korea was recognized as a country of “first asylum”, some North Korean refugee claims were rejected as it was argued that North Koreans had automatic protection from the ROK government. This hurdle, according to one refugee lawyer I spoke to, was later cleared supposedly by a letter from the Korean embassy in Ottawa, which stated that North Koreans were not given “automatic protection” per se, since those with known criminal histories were not accepted as South Korean citizens.

As such, and as it stands now, as long as a North Korean’s testimony is found credible at the Immigration and Refugee Board hearing, they are generally accepted as refugees in Canada.

However, it was not long after this that the dark side of what seemed to be a rather daring rescue operation emerged.

First, as news travelled that Canada was increasingly becoming a destination for North Korean refugee claimants, news also travelled in reverse to us that there were no “underground railroad” routes to Canada. In other words, the people who were responsible for ferrying North Koreans from China onwards (whether they were missionaries or brokers) flatly denied that they were sending people Canada way. Yes, there were Canadians who were in places like Yanji who were part of the underground railroad, but no one was being sent to Canada. After all, it was prohibitively expensive for anyone (even for the brokers and more so for cash-strapped missionaries and NGOs) to simply purchase passports and airline tickets; why would you do that when more traditional methods were far cheaper?

As of today, it is impossible to tell whether these counterclaims are actually true. However, in the five years that I have been part of the refugee advocacy process, not once have these counterclaims (which have come from several collateral sources) been refuted.

Second, as this news travelled through the Korean Canadian community in Toronto, the once avid support for North Korean refugee claimants dissipated considerably. There are still certain churches in Toronto that assist North Koreans who arrive on their doorsteps, but very few organizations in Canada remain that pro-actively support North Koreans in Toronto.

Third, as North Korean refugee claimants were beginning to be accepted in Canada, word travelled back to South Korea that Canada was beginning to become a viable destination. For example, a colleague who works in the refugee community states that North Koreans in Canada post details of the refugee claim process on internet forums frequented by North Koreans in the ROK, including such details as the name of noted and successful refugee lawyers. One such refugee claimant, according to this colleague, showed up at the CIC Etobicoke office demanding that they see a certain refugee lawyer in Toronto who dealt frequently with North Korean claimants, claiming that they had seen her name on an internet forum in China!

Coincidentally, as the United States and the United Kingdom started to adopt more stringent measures in the screening process of North Korean refugee claimants (as I will discuss below), human rights advocates in the ROK tell me that Canada has purportedly become the “destination of choice” for North Koreans in the ROK, a rumour that was confirmed in a recent article in the Chosun Ilbo.

These issues still persist today, and for the most part, raise serious questions. For instance, do the actions of the “first wave” of North Koreans who come to Canada dilute the legitimacy of any future North Korean claimants who wish to come to Canada? What happens if the Canadian government finds out that North Korean refugee claimants here are for the most part, South Korean citizens? Will this affect the adjudication of any future North Koreans who may appear in Toronto that may have actually been ferried over directly from China? Will it cause mass deportations? And what happens when the average Canadian citizen finds out that public funds have been used to support North Koreans who are trying to, in uncouth terms, game the system?

Apart from the birds-eye view argument that migration in itself is beneficial in the long run, there seem to be some benefits to allowing this repeat migration to happen. One may argue that North Koreans face discrimination in South Korea as well, and should be allowed to migrate away from a country in which they face hardship. Another argument that is frequently mentioned is that North Koreans in general may fear for not only their safety, but the safety of their families back home if they are identified in South Korea. Also, it could be argued that the larger the North Korean diaspora exists outside of South Korea, the more “witnesses” to the horrifying human rights tragedy that is still occurring within North Korea can be found.

However, what has transpired in Canada does not largely support any initiatives encouraging migration for the sake of these purported benefits. For one, it seems that North Koreans are migrating from South Korea namely after their ROK government-issued benefits have dried up. According to one conversation I had with a North Korean refugee claimant in Toronto, Canada is identified as a country that will pay refugee claimants an allowance and allow claimants to work legally while the refugee determination process is ongoing. Furthermore, even after adjudication, social assistance in Canada is rumoured to be generous, and the proverbial “word on the street” is that these benefits, unlike those in the ROK, do not run dry.

This betrays an intention that is chiefly financial. This irony will not be lost on some North Korean refugee advocates, since the very reason that China deports North Korean refugees is that they are “economic migrants.”

Yet the method chosen for this migration is not legitimate. North Koreans are not immigrating to Canada stating they are skilled workers or entrepreneurs. Rather, the vast majority of North Koreans claim in their official story to the Canadian government that they have come directly from China as refugees. As we have various sources who have told us that there are no underground railroad paths to Canada, this simply means that they are South Korean citizens who are misrepresenting themselves to gain status – hardly a good first step in learning such fundamental concepts necessary in a democratic society, such as the rule of law. Not only this, but with this misrepresentation they endanger themselves to deportation subsequent to the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Encouraging North Koreans in South Korea that serial migration is possible does not give any incentives for this already mobile population to establish themselves and create a stable diaspora population and promote self-sufficiency. After all, once the government benefits in South Korea dry up, one can go to Canada and spend two years there. And once Canada determines that  you are a refugee and gives you permanent resident status (or in the alternative, do not get status), one can go to Germany or the Netherlands and do this all over again. In fact, such behaviour if identified can discourage defection from North Korea in the future; what stops the regime in Pyongyang from documenting such stories, showing that North Koreans who leave the country face a rootless nomadic existence?

Furthermore, if the experience with the Canadian North Korean contingent is any indicator, North Koreans generally tend to go “underground” after the first few weeks in Canada. Perhaps it is because of the legitimacy of their own entry into Canada, or perhaps it is indeed fear that their families may be persecuted back home, but North Koreans in Canada are in general loathe to speak out against the regime or even talk about their experiences back home in a public forum. Usually, this is even when their anonymity is guaranteed.  I cannot recount how many times a large media outlet, such as the CBC, has asked if any North Koreans are willing to speak about their experiences in North Korea, and how many times I have had to turn them down.

Fortunately, serial migration is a relatively smaller problem within the North Korean refugee community: if there are perhaps a 1,000 North Koreans in the EU and approximately 200 North Koreans in Canada, this only represents a small percentage of the 20,000 North Korean refugees who have arrived in South Korea.

And as small a problem this is, so the solution is small as well: fingerprint-sharing.

From what I understand, both the United States and the United Kingdom have adopted this practice to weed out fraudulent refugee claimants. As South Korea as a general practice fingerprints its whole population and keeps a database of these prints, and since Canada fingerprints all its refugee claimants anyway, the simple step of running these fingerprints through the South Korean database would enable Canadian enforcement authorities to exclude any North Korean refugee claimants that are South Korean citizens. Once the fingerprinting practice is in turn perceived by potential North Koreans in the ROK, the number of North Korean refugee claimants is expected to drop drastically.

Now if I’ve lead you down the path that North Koreans are financially-driven opportunistic “queue-jumpers” that flaunt Canadian immigration laws, to a certain extent, that was intentional. At least some of the North Korean refugee claimants in Canada belong in this category. This does not mean that Canada must close the door on refugee claimants who state North Korean citizenship. In fact, as a North Korean human rights and refugee advocate myself, I would argue that it is hard to find a country whose citizens, by the very definition of leaving the country are persecuted, are more deserving of protection.

However, because of push factors such as discrimination and lack of economic opportunity (factors which I am not totally unsympathetic to), some North Koreans have become serial migrants. This serial migration, especially when things like refugee status are misused, become problematic and cause long term challenges to those who are trying to advance the interests of these very refugees themselves.

There is a silver lining to the Canadian system: the case of private sponsorship. Under Canadian immigration law, any individual (or a group of individuals) who have the financial wherewithal to support a refugee for a year can sponsor a UNHCR designated refugee. This system was wildly successful during the plight of the Vietnamese boat people, and was instrumental in creating a large, successful and vibrant Vietnamese diaspora population in Canada.

The catch here is not one of finances: there are several organizations in Canada that would be interested in sponsoring a North Korean refugee who may be languishing in a detention centre in Thailand. The primary roadblock is that the refugee themselves must be UNHCR designated, and since North Koreans are deemed by the UNHCR to have a country of “first asylum,” the chances that Citizenship and Immigration Canada will allow the sponsorship of North Korean nationals without UNHCR designation is slim. To a certain point, this seems a rather technical differentiation: what makes a North Korean who has been designated by the UNHCR that much different from North Korean refugee claimants who have managed to receive protection from the Immigration and Refugee Board is beyond my comprehension. Furthermore, if the South Korean embassy itself has denied the fact that they are indeed a country of first asylum, this makes the UNHCR designation moot.

Regardless, even if legitimate underground railroad routes do not appear in Canada (and with the slowing down of refugee traffic, one wonders without a future crisis whether such routes would be necessary), Canadians do have any option to press for such private sponsorship. After all, if we can pluck legitimate refugees out from detention centres in Thailand, and Canadians are willing to foot the bill, shouldn’t they be able to do so?

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4 Responses to “Admitting North Korean Refugees: A Canadian Perspective”

  1. roberta cohen Says:

    Thanks so much for this Jack. Most illuminating on the Canadian side, Roberta

    • Roberta cohen Says:

      I’d be interested to know what steps the Canadian government and Canadian NGOs are taking to try to help North Koreans adjust to a new environment — language, job skills, education, housing, psychological support, whether the assistance aims at self sufficiency, and how well it is tailored to the needs and experiences of North Koreans. I

  2. Stephanie Says:

    Hi there,
    Your article actually contains some factural errors about Canada’s resettlement program. Privately Sponsored Refugees do not have to have what you refer to as “UNHCR designation”. A Canadian visa office will look favourably upon this as a way to confirm the person is in fact a refugee, but it is not necessary in order for them to be accepted under the PSR program. To be eligible for resettlement to Canada as a PSR the applicant must have a private sponsor in Canada, must satisfy a visa officer that he or she is a Convention refugee, or a member of the Country of Asylum class (see s.147 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations for the eligibility criteria of this class) and must have no other durable solution available, namely local integration in their country of asylum, or voluntary repatriation (clearly not an option for North Korean refugees). I also question your claim that North Koreans are refused by the IRB on the basis that they should have claimed protection in their country of first asylum. There is no requirement for them to do so under international or Canadian law. However, if a person was accepted as a refugee by another country (for example ROK), then they may not be eligible for refugee protection in Canada.
    Stephanie

  3. Jack Kim Says:

    Hi Stephanie,

    Thanks for your comments! I will have to say that you indeed did point out an error on the first point – technically, the CDN govt does not need the UNHCR designation to process refugees under the PSR. However, in the case of North Korean refugees in Thailand, the designation is for all practical purposes, absolutely necessary. Why? First, from our conversations with CIC, it will take about three years to process North Korean refugees from Thailand under a PSR program (which is shorter than the seven years it would take in certain African countries). As this is far much longer than the South Koreans or the Americans take to process their Thai NK cases (around one month and one year, respectively), no North Koreans are going to wait around when they have viable options elsewhere. Rather, according to some NGO folks we talked to, they would go to the ROK, obtain their South Korean passport, come to CDA, and then declare asylum here… all in far less time that it would take for the PS application to be processed. Second, this processing time could be cut short drastically if the UNHCR recommended NK refugees to Canadian missions – however, since the NKs are deemed to have a durable solution in the ROK (as per our conversations with UNHCR officials), this is not going to happen without a change in legal opinion.

    As per your second point, indeed this is what happened, according to one of the refugee lawyers who was intimately invovled in the first DPRK cases – the combined durable solution/law of return/first asylum issue popped up and she confirmed that at least one member had decided that DPRK nationals did have this durable solution in the ROK (and per the ROK constitution, should have claimed asylum in the ROK). The IRB itself sent a Request for Information to the ROK embassy along these lines, of which the IRB published the RIR in June 2008, quoting an ROK embassy official stating that this right was not automatic (and as such fell in lines with the Federal Court decision of Katkova).

    Hope that clears things up!


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