China is calling on Canadian diplomats to hand over 44 people believed to be North Korean asylum seekers. The group stormed into the Canadian Embassy in the Chinese capital on Wednesday.

China's government is demanding custody of the alleged North Korean asylum seekers saying it considers their entry into the Canadian Embassy a security issue.

Assistant Foreign Minister Shen Guofang told reporters in Beijing Thursday the issue is one of law.

Mr. Shen says China opposes the way the 44 men, women, and children entered the Canadian Embassy compound on Chinese territory illegally. He says Beijing wants Canadian officials to hand them over to China.

Canadian officials have yet to respond to the demand. But Canada's ambassador to China spoke Wednesday shortly after the refugees climbed his embassy's spiked fences, saying his staff would work to ensure that the asylum seekers were treated humanely.

The incident at the Canadian Embassy occurred as U.S. diplomats said at least eight North Koreans had been turned over to Chinese authorities after they entered the American school in Shanghai, a non-diplomatic facility. A U.S. embassy spokesman said the U.S. government has urged Chinese authorities not to return the refugees to North Korea if they say do not want to go back.

China regards North Korean asylum seekers as illegal migrants and not as refugees. Beijing has a policy of returning them to their homeland, where activists say they face harsh punishment from the Communist authorities for attempting to defect.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans try to flee hunger and repression by the Stalinist government by crossing the border into China. A number of them have succeeded in gaining passage to South Korea by seeking asylum at foreign embassies in Beijing.

In the past few years China has generally relented, granting the asylum seekers transit visas via a third country.