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China Denies Policy Change on North Korea Refugees - 2003-06-17

China has denied it is changing its policy on repatriating North Korean refugees, as suggested by the top U.N. refugee official.

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials said they have not relaxed rules on dealing with illegal North Korean immigrants.

Monday the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers, touring Asia, suggested China has eased mandatory deportations of North Koreans. He said Chinese officials told him recently that forced repatriation is only being used if the person committed a crime in China.

But Mr. Lubbers said the country has a long way to go before meeting its U.N. obligations concerning refugees. He said even though China treats all North Koreans as illegal economic migrants many of them would probably qualify as refugees fleeing persecution.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jinchao Tuesday rejected Mr. Lubbers' comments. He said China will handle the illegal migrants "according to international law and Chinese law." He said specifically China's position is not changed.

China is North Korea's neighbor and communist ally. Experts say China is worried that easing treatment of fleeing North Koreans might spark a million-person flood of refugees into an area of China that already suffers from high unemployment and social unrest.

U.N. estimates say there may now be 100,000 North Koreans hiding in China, while activists put the number three times higher.

Mr. Lubbers said it is hard to know the actual number because China does not allow U.N. officials to interview illegal migrants to assess their refugee claims.