Michelle Jang is a demure, soft-spoken woman. She has shoulder-length, wavy hair and gentle eyes.
At first glance, she’s no different from other Korean women. Nothing about her physical features gives away her hard-fought history of escape, hiding and persecution.
Jang escaped North Korea in 1999.
“We really, really had nothing to eat,” she said about her life back at home. It was through payments to border guards and human smugglers that Jang escaped to China where she lived in hiding.
Recalling memories of China, Jang let out a nervous chuckle. After a prolonged silence, “life was hard” was all she said, followed by another pause. “I don’t know how to express it all in words.”
Jang made it to Canada in 2012 where she was given a working visa and an opportunity to work as a reporter for Radio Free Asia – a broadcast organization for North Korean affairs.
Today, Jang is one of hundreds of North Korean defectors living in Toronto, waiting to receive status in Canada.
But only a single North Korean defector was granted refugee status in Canada in 2014, according to documents from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
For the first half of 2015, not a single North Korean claimant was accepted into Canada. This compares with the 222 North Korean claimants who were accepted in 2012.
In a desperate attempt to stay in Canada, many defectors are currently hiding their identities and are illegal immigrants. According to Jang who is a part of the underground North Korean community, there are fewer than 200 North Koreans living in Toronto.
A not-so-“safe” country
Human rights organizations have been pushing for a more welcoming North Korean refugee policy for years, especially after the Conservative government’s crackdown on refugee policies in 2012 with the “Designated Countries of Origins” list in Bill C-31. Nations on this “Safe Countries” list are considered relatively safer than others, therefore less likely to produce refugees. Refugee claimants from these countries are given less time to prepare their claims before a hearing and will be subject to much faster removal times once a claim is rejected, according to the government website.
When South Korea was listed as a safe country in May 2013, the number of North Koreans accepted in to Canada plummeted because the current Canadian policy categorizes North Korean defectors as South Korean refugee claimants. Since then, North Korean defectors have a more difficult time obtaining refugee status in Canada.
This policy heightens the risk of deportation back to South Korea, which is what many North Koreans fear.
“Basically it’s a policy of self-deportation,” said Alain Dionne, Ottawa’s regional director for Human Rights in North Korea.
Conditions in South Korea are not favourable and sometimes unbearable for North Koreans who face ostracism and prejudice from their South Korean neighbours; oftentimes, they are the victims of scams are exploited financially, said Dionne.
Jang recalled a story that exemplified her life in South Korea.
One of her fellow workers found out she was a North Korean defector.
“He asked me ‘How do you live? How do you have a house?’” said Jang.
Jang explained to him the process in which North Koreans receive aid from the South Korean government. When North Koreans defect through China then eventually to South Korea, the South Korean government takes them in.
For three months, they must go through the Hanawon Resettlement Center. Here, they are heavily screened and are also taught how to live in South Korean society. They are taught basic skills from how to use a cellphone to how to make bank transactions. Three months later, they are released into an alien society they now must call ‘home’.
“He said right to my face ‘The South Korean government doesn’t even take care of their own people, but they’re caring for defectors?’” — Jang
The training, however, rarely prepares them for the abrasive hostility and discrimination they face in the South Korean society.
It was the response of her South Korean colleague that left an imprint on Jang’s memory to this day.
“He said right to my face ‘The South Korean government doesn’t even take care of their own people, but they’re caring for defectors?’” said Jang. “I was deeply shocked.”
This is when she understood that North Koreans just like her were facing similar prejudice on the other side of the Korean border.
“Life in North Korea is brutal, China is hard, South Korea is little bit easier but still hard,” said Dionne. “They never get it good.”
A renewed hope
But this grim outlook for North Koreans in Canada is looking a lot brighter. As a member of Toronto’s small, underground North Korean community, Jang said there is a sense of hope rising from among her people.
“We are really, really optimistic,” she said. “Recently I met several North Korean friends, and most of them feel really hopeful with the new government.”
The Liberal government’s promise to improve overall refugee policies will also benefit the North Korean defectors living in and coming into Canada, said Dionne.
The government announced in October it would invest $250 million over the next two fiscal years to increase refugee processing, sponsorship, and settlement capacity in Canada. There will also be a review of previous policies that eliminates basic health care for refugees.
“It’s not just for the Syrian refugees, but all refugees,” said Dionne.
The government’s refugee promises also included establishing an Expert Human Rights Panel that will review the designated countries of origins policy that has been directly harming North Koreans. It will also look to provide a right to appeal for refugees applying from countries on this safe countries list.
“Canada’s asylum system ensures that all eligible claimants – regardless of their country of origin – have access to a full, fact-based hearing,” said Rejean Cantlon, spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
“Decisions are made based on the merits of the specific facts presented in an individual case, and in accordance with Canada’s immigration laws,” said Cantlon.
Dionne said he is optimistic that this panel will give the right to North Koreans – who were once in danger of being deported back to South Korea – to appeal in Canada.
“The Liberal government can’t be worse than the Conservatives,” said Dionne with regards to refugee policies.
Until now, many North Koreans in Canada hid their identities, wanting to live quietly.
But now with the Conservatives gone, there is a new gathering among the North Korean defectors to discuss their future in a Canada with the new government. This is the first time North Korean defectors in Canada are gathering to plan and present their case.
“The defectors will make their future for themselves,” said Jang.
Currently, this underground community is in the process of organizing communication among the members. Jang said that within a couple months, this group is planning to start vocalizing their stories and call for awareness and change.
“Now is the time to raise their voice.”— Jang
“I hope more and more defectors will have courage to speak up for their rights,” said Jang.
This may risk their deportation since many of them are hiding their identities because of their illegal status.
“They are always at risk, from South Korea to any other place,” said Jang. “Now is the time to raise their voice.”
With the government working hard to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, Jang said there is a need to understand and reconsider the case of North Korean defectors who are also fleeing their country.
“Syrians escape because they know what freedom is, but North Koreans escape not knowing what freedom is.”
[Header photo (c) Pixabay]
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