Save North Korean Refugees Day, which falls on 24 September, aims to highlight the terrible trials faced by North Korean refugees in China.
It also marks the day, 36 years ago, that China became a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, an agreement the country continues to violate through its treatment of North Korean escapees.
China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees is illegal as it violates the fundamental international humanitarian principle of ‘non-refoulement’, which prohibits receiving countries from returning refugees to a country where they would likely face persecution due to their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
And yet, that is exactly what they are being sent back to: North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive regimes, referred to by the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry as “a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” in terms of human rights violations. CSW’s 2016 report previously revealed that deported escapees regularly face execution, torture, arbitrary detention, deliberate starvation, illegal cavity searches, forced abortions, and other sexual violence at the hands of the North Korean authorities.
On 25 August last year, the Burma army unleashed its attack on the Rohingya people of northern Rakhine state, precipitating the country’s most severe human rights and humanitarian crisis since independence in 1949. The United Nations’ outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, described this crisis as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, warned of “the hallmarks of genocide”. After the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica the world lamented with the words: “Never again”. But a year ago in Burma, “never again” happened all over again.
“They made it impossible for us to stay – how could we survive?”
In March this year, I travelled to the refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border, to meet survivors. Almost everyone I talked to had seen loved ones killed and villages burned. Accounts of mass rape were widespread. I met Rohingyas whose eyes had been shot out and limbs blown off, and heard of others whose eyes had been gouged out, throats slit and limbs hacked off.
A thick layer of dust coats everything inside the Eritrean embassy in the Ethiopian capital, which was unlocked this week for the first time since 1998. Photos of this ‘time capsule’ were published by the BBC, which, along with the world’s media, is charting the remarkable thaw in relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The two nations went to war in 1998 but maintained a war footing due to Ethiopia’s refusal to allow demarcation of their common border, in accordance with a 2003 ruling.
Three years ago, I found myself at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), playing a game with an eight year old girl – I would say the name of an animal and she would draw it. She was an Eritrean refugee and had come to the HRC with her parents as part of a delegation who were there to give testimony at a side event. Her entire family had been detained by the government, locked up with others in a shipping container. She shared memories of the entire place smelling awful, of being freezing cold at night and roasting hot during the day and of how she and her other siblings joked about which family member was covered with the most lice. A serious issue was turned into a game as their parents did their best to shield their children from the full force of the horrors they were experiencing.
No one should be denied food or medicine on account of their ethnicity or religion, but that is what is increasingly happening to some people in Burma. A humanitarian crisis is emerging because in some parts of the country, the authorities are blocking aid access. In other areas, international agencies are cutting aid. Blocks and cuts combined are resulting in displaced people who have fled conflict going hungry at night. That is why we have launched our new campaign: “Real Change”.
When we talk about refugees today, we think of Syria and Iraq. But Burma remains a country where significant numbers of people are fleeing conflict and persecution. Thousands escape to other countries, but others are internally displaced. Over 120,000 in Kachin and northern Shan states, and over 130,000 Rohingyas in Rakhine state.