North Koreans in Toronto: The NGO Predicament


It is no secret for anyone living in Toronto that persons of North Korean descent are living in Canada, and that most of them end up settling in Toronto. Also, for anyone who has devoted any effort to North Korean issues in Toronto, it is obvious after only a bit of time that most, if not all of them, have spent some considerable time in South Korea. You don’t have to notice that the first thing that many North Koreans do is obtain a smartphone, or that they stop needing your assistance after two weeks in Canada, or that the clothing they choose to wear is remarkably South Korean. Some will simply openly tell you that they came from South Korea and chose to live in Toronto.

Unfortunately, that is not the story they tell the Canadian immigration authorities. Doing so would spell doom to a refugee claim, which all North Koreans lodge upon entering the country. Rather, the typical North Korean refugee claim starts in North Korea and goes straight through China to Canada, omitting the South Korean leg of the journey. This is for obvious reason. Being honest and upfront about coming through a country that welcomes North Korean refugees with lavish subsidies would lead to an outright dismissal of their refugee claim.

There is a further wrinkle now that a lie has been told: the laws surrounding misrepresentation. If found to have misrepresented themselves to the government under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the claimant would then find themselves unable to enter Canada for two years, with legislation now in the House of Commons that would expand that period to five.

Although I have written in the past how the Canadian government should respond to this issue, what has been neglected is how civil society should cope with this recent phenomenon. How should non-governmental organizations that deal with North Korea specifically respond to the North Koreans arriving on our shores?

The most obvious and knee-jerk reaction is to actively assist them. HanVoice, an organization I helped found, first started off in that role. This usually consists of assisting North Koreans settle in Toronto, whether it’s interpreting for them, finding lodging, or simply going to the grocery store. Ironically, the two North Korean residents’ associations that have sprouted up in Toronto are doing exactly this, having their volunteers provide the same settlement services they themselves received when first arriving in Toronto.

However, HanVoice, in a 2007 meeting with a journalist from the Korea Times, was explicitly requested by North Koreans in Toronto to stop assisting them and concentrate its efforts on North Koreans in China and in the DPRK proper. At the time, we were puzzled as to why this was the case. Eventually, the news of misrepresentation trickled through not only from the North Koreans in Toronto, but also from South Korean human rights organizations, underground railroad workers, brokers, and missionaries in China who began to warn us that the very people we were trying to assist were also lying to us.

This poses a very interesting, yet difficult question to any North Korea related organization. Knowing full well that most (if not all) the people you are assisting have also lied to the Canadian government to get into the country, what should you do?

One approach is to simply leave the refugee determination process to the federal government. This is an approach which was adopted in the early days of HanVoice and also communicated to me recently by Toronto City Councillor Raymond Cho, who has been assisting North Koreans here in Toronto. When I asked him specifically regarding the fact that most of the North Koreans in Toronto have committed misrepresentation, Councillor Cho commented that “we have a very good system in Canada with regards to refugee determination and I leave that decision to them.”

For the uninitiated, this can be a satisfactory answer. After all, if a North Korean does not tell you that they came through South Korea, how are you supposed to know? Guess? For some organizations with very little institutional capacity and technical expertise with regards to North Koreans in Toronto, and who simply serve “walk-in” type clients, this may be a sufficient organizational policy. It’s basically a form of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

However, there are three factors that put the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in peril. At one point when dealing with North Koreans in Toronto, a North Korean will tell you outright that they are from South Korea. Now to be fair, there are indeed rare cases where North Korean refugee claimants will represent that they came through South Korea. This is most often in the case of domestic abuse or fear from organized crime elements that the North Korean has associated themselves with in South Korea. However, in the vast majority of cases, this is not the case. So what does an organization do at that point?

Before we answer that question, there is also another factor to deal with: at one point should an organization “ought to know” about North Korean legal transgressions? For example, if an organization deals heavily with North Koreans, and has been informed from multiple sources in China and South Korea that there is no refugee route into Canada, at one point does “don’t ask, don’t tell” become an act of willful blindness?

And before we answer that question, we know that North Koreans are successful at their hearings at the Immigration and Refugee Board. Roughly five hundred North Koreans have been accepted as refugees in Canada since 2006. However, if what we know is true, and that they have lied to get their way into the country, it means that the refugee determination process has not worked: and that the North Koreans have found a loophole within it. At this point of time, unless a North Korean: a) admits under testimony, or b) has entered a country, or is in a database of an international organization, which has an information sharing agreement with Canada, it is nearly impossible to gain any evidence that a North Korean has transited through South Korea. And having had to lie their way through not only North Korea, but China as well for the purposes of survival, North Koreans have the deception game quite well practiced.

So to answer those questions. For those who actively assist North Koreans in misrepresenting themselves, one should consult s. 126 and s. 127 of the above mentioned immigration legislation. Those sections make it quite clear that “aiding and abetting” misrepresentation will get you either a very stiff fine or substantial jail time. But apart from the legal risks, there lies other risks as well. In fact, for an organization that trades on their credibility with regards to North Korean issues, the existence of widespread misrepresentation within the North Korean community here becomes a grave issue. If found to be actively assisting those who have violated immigration law, and knowingly doing so, an organization could forever taint any efforts with regards to affecting governmental change, or receiving grants. This reputational risk does not end with government: the court of public opinion may not be forgiving as well if it were to find out that an organization was assisting a group of people despite knowing full well that they were false refugee claimants.

One approach which some North Korean human rights organizations in the United States took when confronted with this issue in the early 2000’s, was an “ask only when helped” policy. These organizations did not go out of their way to help North Koreans, nor would they advertise that they assisted North Koreans in the United States. Rather, they would assist North Koreans who took the step in contacting their organizations, but would do so “incognito” and without any official announcement.

Of course, adopting such an approach has its own pitfalls for human rights organizations. Having an ambiguous policy towards North Koreans may not stop the very activity that you are trying to distance yourself from: HanVoice, despite having distanced itself from assisting North Koreans in Toronto on an active basis, still gets calls from all quarters of Toronto (and beyond) asking for help. Also, this doesn’t solve the problem of helping those who have broken Canadian law: do you ask North Koreans before you assist them whether they’ve come through South Korea? What if they still lie to you (as many North Koreans have personally done to me)? And what if they say yes?

The third approach to assisting North Koreans in Toronto is not assisting them at all. This is indeed the most drastic (and some may say heartless) measure, but one that is rooted within legal ethics itself: refugee lawyers, if advised by a refugee claimant client that a crucial part of their narrative is untrue, are advised to withdraw representation of their misrepresenting client. From a problem-solving point of view, it is the “cleanest” and most effective method of handling this issue.

Yet it is one that human rights organizations cannot take lightly. Most people want to make an immediate impact in any cause, and what better way to help North Koreans than the people in your own backyard. Removing yourself from helping North Koreans in your own backyard is a difficult proposition for these organizations (mostly fledgling) that need momentum and support to sustain themselves. Furthermore, there are those within the human rights community that either are willing to overlook these legal transgressions or simply do not care: taking such a step may alienate the most passionate of your supporters who may not necessarily believe in the concept of borders.

So what are human rights organizations to do? The problem that organizations face is that the ultimate solution cannot come from the organizations themselves. Although there may be no real positive obligations for human rights organizations to inform the Canadian government of any misrepresentations that occur, the risks are very clear. Those risks will only be mitigated for organizations only if the people they are trying to serve are given a “clean slate” by the government.

Fortunately, there is clear precedent from countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. By entering information sharing agreements with South Korea, the immigration authorities in both these countries, by sharing a refugee claimant’s fingerprints with the South Korean authorities, are able to make a quick determination on who is a real refugee claimant and who is not. In turn, American and British organizations can assist North Koreans within the United States and the United Kingdom without any real fear of the legal and political risks that dog Canadian organizations. Perhaps the only consolation until such a policy is implemented for us North Korea hands is that once it is, the solution will be quick and effective. In the meantime, we will have to navigate this sea of illegal ambiguity.

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