SEOUL— Five North Koreans now sheltering in the Czech Republic are expected to learn in the coming days whether they will be allowed to immigrate as refugees to the United States, according to a senior Czech official.
Three North Korean men and two women arrived in Prague July 27, Tomas Urubek, director of the Department for Asylum and Migration Policies at the Czech Interior Ministry, said.
The five had been in Beijing under the protection of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), he said, adding that this is the first time the Czech Republic has granted temporary residence to North Koreans from China as they transit to third countries.
“The U.S. authorities are now considering the cases and apparently they are now close to the final decision to grant them refugee status and to resettle them in the United States,” Urubek said.
“[In the Czech Republic] they did not get asylum in terms of the Geneva Convention. They are just allowed to stay within the territory of our country until the U.S. authorities complete the resettlement procedures,” he added.
The Prague Daily Monitor quoted Interior Ministry spokeswoman Jana Malikova as saying that the North Koreans’ need for temporary asylum was grave.
"These people could not be granted any form of international protection. On the contrary, they were threatened with immediate expulsion to North Korea that is infamous for the totalitarian regime,” Malikova said.
If admitted, this group would bring to 72 the number of North Korean refugees in the United States.
Refugees in U.S.
According to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, 67 North Koreans have settled in the United States under terms of the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004—including six admitted in July 2008.
A small number of North Koreans have fled through China to third countries including Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Thailand, and Vietnam, usually hoping to reach South Korea. South Korea accepts all North Korean asylum-seekers as citizens, and Seoul has admitted more than 10,000 North Koreans in the last decade.
A number of countries worldwide have hosted North Korean workers but in some cases have drawn criticism for allegedly failing to protect these workers' rights. In response, the Czech Republic stopped issuing work visas for North Korean workers in 2006.
The number of North Koreans crossing illegally into Thailand is meanwhile again on the rise according to an aid worker in Chiang Rai, who cited relaxed border surveillance by Chinese authorities in the wake of the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan.
The number of North Koreans in detention in Chiang Rai has recently risen from 60 to about 100, the aid worker said.
North Korean refugees leave China to enter Thailand through Chiang Rai province, and then head to Bangkok. Those arrested en route to Bangkok in Chiang Mai province, south of Chiang Rai, are held at the Mae Sai detention facility, which currently houses about 30 North Koreans.
Original reporting by Myeonghwa Jang and Joo Hyun Ahn for RFA’s Korean service. Korean service director: Kwang-Chool Lee. Translated and researched by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.