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UN Refugee Commissioner Notes Improvement in China's Treatment of N. Korean Refugees - 2003-06-20

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers says he is optimistic that China will improve its treatment of North Korean refugees. The assessment comes despite denials from China that it is making any policy changes. Mr. Lubbers is marking World Refugee Day in Tokyo, with an international symposium.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says he has noticed slight positive changes in the attitude of the Chinese government toward the North Korean refugees.

This includes scaling back on automatic repatriation of the North Koreans, considered by China to be illegal economic immigrants.

Ruud Lubbers says Chinese officials told him recently that forced repatriation will only be used in certain cases. He says the United Nations supports this move since many of the tens of thousands of North Koreans hiding in China would qualify as refugees and face persecution when sent back to the hardline Stalinist state.

Mr. Lubbers stuck by this assessment Friday, despite denials this week by China. On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao said China was not relaxing it policy on illegal North Korean immigrants, who he says are dealt with humanely according to international and domestic law.

Mr. Lubbers insists that even China's denial used language that showed a shift in its approach to the North Korean issue.

"They say we will comply with international obligations. It can not mean different than they want to live up the 1951 Convention on Refugees in which the U.S. and the Chinese government are partners," he said. " And then they add they will do it in a humanitarian spirit. That is the first time they added it. Originally, it was just illegal migration, which we cannot accept. Now they added these two elements."

High Commissioner Lubbers says the UNHCR plans to step up assistance for the North Koreans and he worries that concerns over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions will eclipse the refugee issue.

"There is a challenge for international community to address the humanitarian problems of the North Koreans," he noted. " And I make this point and I want to underline it here because everybody understands that the big political issue is nuclear issue. This is for other people to discuss. But I want to draw some attention to the difficult humanitarian situation of the North Koreans and I will do my utmost when it comes to those who cross the boarder to see what we can do."

Mr. Lubbers says he wants more cooperation with non-governmental organizations to help the North Koreans make their way to South Korea and other countries. He says proposals for joint projects to take the asylum seekers to Mongolia and other countries are now being considered.