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Aid Group Reports Arrest of North Korean Asylum Seekers in China - 2003-01-20

An international aid group says Chinese police have detained dozens of North Korean asylum seekers. Doctors Without Borders says they are among thousands who may face a "grim fate" if returned to North Korea.

A statement from Doctors Without Borders Monday says police nabbed 48 North Koreans who had been hiding in China along with three aid workers trying to help them escape to other countries by boat. The arrests took place Saturday in the northeastern Chinese city of Yantai and activists say the North Koreans will probably be sent back to their starving, Stalinist homeland and may face imprisonment and torture.

In Seoul, a spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders, Sophie Delaunay, says these arrests are just the latest of a series in China. She said since December, more than 3,000 North Koreans have been detained since authorities began a crackdown on what Beijing calls illegal economic migrants. Hundreds of them are repatriated every week from the Chinese border, and what we know is the living condition of North Koreans in China is extremely bad," she said. "It is more and more difficult for them to get assistance so the situation is getting worse and worse."

Aid groups and experts estimate that up to 300,000 North Koreans are hiding in China after years of famine in their isolated, impoverished country. About 130 North Korean asylum seekers have come to international attention in the past year by scrambling into diplomatic missions in Beijing and demanding political asylum in South Korea. China has eventually allowed them to leave for South Korea via third countries.

China says the North Koreans are not political refugees entitled to protection and help, but illegal economic migrants looking for work who should be sent back where they came from as quickly as possible.

China's Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue has said Beijing treats them properly. Ms. Zhang said Beijing deals with the North Koreans according to international and local laws in a humanitarian fashion.

But aid workers say China has been violating international rules by refusing to allow United Nations refugee officials to meet with the North Korean asylum seekers to evaluate their claims for political asylum. Doctors Without Borders is calling on the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to renew efforts to intervene in the North Korean issue.