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China slammed over N.Korea refugees

Beijing has tightened security at diplomatic compounds after a spate of break-ins by North Korean refugees

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• Special Report: The two Koreas 

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A human rights group has slammed China's treatment of up to 300,000 North Korean asylum seekers and called for an end to their forcible deportation.

According to the independent group, Human Rights Watch, between 10,000 and 300,000 North Koreans have crossed the border and are living illegally in China where they face a myriad of human rights abuses.

The group says China is in breach of international laws.

North Korean refugees arriving in China reportedly encounter a range of problems including extortion, rape, human trafficking, torture and death.

Trafficking in female refugees is commonplace, according to a humanitarian worker in the region. "They are slaves; sexual toys," the worker warned.

"North Korea bears the main responsibility for this exodus of refugees, who are fleeing hunger and human rights abuses at home," commented Mike Jendrzejczyk the Washington director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.

"But the Chinese government has important responsibilities, too. Forcibly returning asylum seekers is a blatant violation of international law," he added.

China is a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, which requires member countries to "not forcibly return asylum seekers who face persecution at home."

In the Human Rights Watch report, titled 'The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the People's Republic of China', the group claims returning North Koreans face prison terms or the death penalty, if they are charged with treason.

Diplomatic compounds

There have been a spate of high profile attempts at freedom by North Korean asylum seekers entering foreign diplomatic consulates in mainland China. Between March and September, 121 North Koreans managed to enter foreign consulates in China and gained safe passage to South Korea.

As a result, security around diplomatic compounds has been increased and borders are under stricter surveillance.

China's policy for handling the asylum seekers is immediate expulsion -- as both a measure of deterrence to further migration and also to maintain relations with North Korea.

While migration had greatly decreased by mid-2002, numbers were expected to rise once winter arrived, bringing food shortages, the report said.

The report proposed North Korea cease punishment of asylum seekers and their families. It also urged China to halt efforts to forcibly return legitimate North Korean refugees and along with other countries in the region recommended asylum be granted in line with international law.

The report was based on interviews with 15 North Korean refugees in Seoul, as well as with humanitarian and human rights activists, scholars, and government officials in various countries.

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