An international group of lawmakers meeting in Thailand has urged countries to better protect and support North Korean defectors. They also demanded that China stop forcibly repatriating refugees to North Korea, where they could face execution.
Representatives from twelve countries, mostly in Asia, met in Thailand Saturday to raise attention to the plight of North Korean refugees.
Pyongyang's human rights violations have led thousands of refugees to flee the secretive state, mainly into China.
But, the International Parliamentarians' Coalition for North Korean Refugees and Human Rights says those who escape the impoverished but tightly controlled nation often face abuse and discrimination because of their illegal status.
South Korean lawmaker Kim Yong-tae says women make up 80 percent of North Korean defectors. Speaking through a translator, he says most of them end up marrying Chinese men but neither they or their children have access to social services in China.
"We need to cooperate each other to pressure Chinese or the other country government to give them legal status," he said. "And second, we need to offer some conditions for them to sustain their livelihoods."
North Korean defectors who are caught in China are arrested and sent back. In North Korea they are branded as traitors and face prison and sometimes execution.
The lawmakers issued a joint statement calling on Pyongyang to end its gross human rights violations, including political detentions, torture, and public executions.
The statement was signed by lawmakers from eight Asian nations: Afghanistan, Cambodia, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
Also signing the statement were African lawmakers from Djibouti, Ivory Coast, and Senegal and one lawmaker from Croatia.
They statement demanded China stop arresting and repatriating North Koreans and instead offer them protections as refugees.
But, lawmakers acknowledge that China considers fleeing North Koreans illegal economic migrants and is not likely to help them out any time soon.
Japanese lawmaker Masaharu Nakagawa says China has an agreement with Pyongyang to repatriate all North Korean defectors.
"I think that their anxiety is that if once they decide to send them to a third country [then] more migrations, more people coming into China," said Nakagawa.
Although many North Korean refugees hide in China, others make the long trek south to Thailand. Its reputation as a safe haven for North Koreans on their way to South Korea has made Thailand a primary transit route.
Thailand considers North Korean refugees illegal migrants and usually detains them for some time.
But, unlike China, Thailand does not send them back to North Korea and instead allows them to go to South Korea or another country.
Lawmakers praised Thailand's efforts but say more still needs to be done.
Rights activists attending the meeting of lawmakers say there are about 40 North Korean refugees being held by Thai immigration authorities.
The lawmakers' statement says North Korean refugees should be treated as citizens of South Korea rather than criminals.
It also requests governments to increase official development aid to countries in Southeast Asia transited by North Korean defectors and improve efforts to grant them refugee status under international law.