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US lawmakers warn North Korean refugees face forcible repatriation from China

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers warned on Tuesday that China could be preparing to forcibly repatriate refugees who fled North Korea and urged the United Nations to use its influence with Beijing to prevent this.

Chris Smith, Republican chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), told a hearing there was “good reason to believe” such a repatriation was imminent as North Korea reopens its border after being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He referred to reports that approximately 2,000 and “perhaps many more” North Korean refugees faced repatriation “which would subject them to severe human rights violations upon their return.”

Smith said he shared his “deep concern” about the plight of North Korean refugees in China with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in an April meeting, and added:

“I ask again, Secretary-General Guterres, please use your influence to the utmost to dissuade the Chinese government from forcibly repatriating these refugees.”

Smith also called on United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi to take a more active role on behalf of the refugees.

According to reports in South Korea’s Korea Times newspaper and the Washington Post, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Elizabeth Salmon, said last year she had received information that as many as 2,000 North Korean escapees were detained in China and facing the risk of repatriation.

The CECC co-chair, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, said a 2014 report by the U.N. commission on inquiry on human rights in North Korea had stated clearly that forcible repatriation of North Koreans “subjects them to crimes against humanity.”

Merkley said the U.N. commission made clear this violated the international principle of “non-refoulement, which is supposed to guarantee that nobody will be repatriated to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, and other irreparable harm.”

“Just being a North Korean in China means an individual would be in grave peril if sent back to North Korea,” he said.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres stands “for the respect of international refugee law and against refoulement.”

China’s Washington embassy, UNHCR, and North Korea’s U.N. mission did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Don Durfee and Grant McCool)

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