BEIJING (Reuters) - The head of the U.N. refugee agency voiced objections to China's deportation of North Korean migrants on Thursday and urged Beijing to establish a legal system that allows them to seek asylum.
Estimates of the number of North Koreans in China range from 30,000 to 300,000. Most are fleeing hunger, poverty and political oppression at home but the Chinese government considers them illegal migrants, leaving them at risk of deportation.
Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said that at times during his three-day visit he had raised "my clear objections in relation to news that appeared that there had been a recent deportation that had been, in my opinion, in breach of the U.N. Convention".
Guterres said that while most North Koreans were crossing the border for economic reasons, the persecution they were likely to face if deported meant they merited protection under international law.
The United States and rights groups say North Korea has one of the worst human rights records, with a network of gulags for political prisoners and public executions designed to intimidate the masses.
The diplomatically isolated country also suffered a famine in the 1990s that killed as many as 2.5 million.
"People who illegally cross the border are in violation of North Korean law and in some circumstances can have a severe punishment," Guterres told a news conference. "It is enough for a problem of protection to be relevant."
Witnesses told a U.S. Congressional hearing last year that China was failing to protect the North Koreans and that the U.N. refugee agency had failed to hold Beijing accountable under its obligations as a signatory to a 1951 convention on refugees.
Asked if his agency pressed China to treat the migrants as refugees, Guterres said: "It was not a question we didn't raise ... it is a question both sides recognise exists and want to face and solve together."
China, which fears instability if large numbers flood across the 1,400-km border it shares with North Korea, says the Korean migrants are not deserving of protection.
"Those people you mentioned are illegal migrants into Chinese territory, they are not refugees," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news briefing earlier in the week.
In a sign of their desperation, clusters of North Koreans have flung themselves over the walls of diplomatic missions and international schools in China, most winning safe passage to South Korea via third countries.
Guterres said much of his visit, during which he met State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and officials from the Ministry of Civil Affairs and Public Security Bureau, was focused on China's efforts to draft laws on asylum.
With proper laws, the links between national sovereignty and international law would be clearer.
"What we need is to clarify the rules for cooperation to be smooth," he said.
Guterres hinted that he had met some North Koreans in China, but would give no figures on how many there might be or how many his agency had helped, citing their safety.
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