As Canada continues to raise immigration targets, a sizeable proportion of permanent resident (PR) admissions are being reserved for non-economic migrants. Most notably, the government plans to grant PR to 76,305 refugees and protected persons in 2023.

This commitment to welcoming more refugees aligns with the fact that millions around the world are seeking resettlement. Despite this, one group remains traditionally ineligible for PR.

Migrants from North Korea are commonly unrecognized as “refugees” by countries around the world. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines refugees as “people who have been forced to flee their homes and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.” This classification is often unapplicable to North Koreans, removing most protections and resettlement available to migrants from other countries.

Canada launched a one-of-a-kind private sponsorship program for North Korean refugees in response to their unique plight. However, mobilization of the program has been slow. Greater public awareness of the challenges North Koreans face could help. In the meantime, safe resettlement pathways remain elusive.

In many cases, North Koreans leave their country by choice, and hence are not considered “refugees” in the conventional sense. However, whether they defect or leave out of a desire to live elsewhere, they risk persecution once they cross the border, as it is a criminal offense in North Korea to leave without permission. If they are returned, they face imprisonment, torture, and even execution.

The term “refugee sur place” may be more appropriate to describe North Koreans who have fled their country. While they do not necessarily leave due to direct persecution, they do face the abovementioned threats for leaving.

Their legal distinction and limited mobility rights are only one aspect of North Koreans’ ongoing challenges when seeking to resettle.

Since taking power over a decade ago, Kim Jong Un has tightened control, which has led to fewer successful escapes and dwindling cases of resettlement.

COVID-19 border closures also brought significant declines in the number of North Korean defector admissions to South Korea, where most North Koreans are resettled. In 2022, only 67 defectors arrived in South Korea – the second-lowest on record after 63 in 2021.

The number of North Korean refugee claimants to the United States, though small to begin with, was already in decline even before the pandemic. Since they began arriving in the U.S. in 2006, only 220 have been resettled. Prior to the pandemic in 2019, only one refugee claimant from North Korea arrived in the U.S.

Meanwhile, China continues to forcefully repatriate North Koreans, despite being in violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which “guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm,” according to the UN Human Rights Office.

The vast majority of these North Korean migrants being turned away or deported are women and their children, who are at risk of being sold to human and sex trafficking while in transit.

Where does Canada stand on the issue?

Canada has historically not demonstrated much hospitality to North Korean refugee claimants, especially if they arrived through a safe third country such as South Korea, where they could apply for citizenship. In the past, North Koreans awaiting permanent residency in Canada faced fears of deportation, as the government sought to send them to South Korea against their wishes.

Canada is hardly opposed to refugee resettlement in general. Canada has an established tradition of welcoming refugees, and was the first country to offer private sponsorship of refugees (PSR) since 1979. In 2019, Canada ranked first among 26 countries in refugee resettlements.

As a leader in refugee resettlement, Canadians have played an integral role in this success story. Therein lies the potential to provide support to North Koreans seeking to resettle. While many North Koreans experience stigma and discrimination in South Korea and receive scant supports in the U.S., there is an opportunity to offer a better future in Canada.

The UNHCR reports that refugees who resettle in Canada feel a strong sense of belonging, even more so than Canadian-born citizens. The organization points to low rates of unemployment, strong performance in school and in the workforce, and the highest rate of citizenship uptake among all newcomers.

Canada could serve not only as one alternative for North Korean refugee claimants; it could step up to be the best viable option as the aforementioned countries admit fewer North Korean refugees each year or refoul them.

What has Canada done in response?

In 2016, the Canadian government made several momentous recommendations in its response to the Fourth Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights. Most notably, it called for a short-term solution to allow entry of the most vulnerable North Korean defectors, such as women and children trapped in Thailand and other third countries, and for a pilot project to identify appropriate candidates for resettlement. It also recommended an amendment to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to create an exception to the definition of “refugee,” permitting North Korean defectors to qualify for refugee status in Canada.

In the fall of 2021, Canada launched a landmark pilot program offering private sponsorship for North Korean refugees – a program which remains unique around the world.

Canada’s one-of-a-kind PSR program is being championed by HanVoice, a Canadian resettlement organization and advocacy group that was started by three law school students and now has over 300 members across the country. Since its inception in 2007, it has worked continuously to bring high-level policy advocacy against human rights violations in North Korea, while raising awareness and engaging Canadians in the resettlement of North Korean refugees.

In partnership with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, HanVoice plans to resettle five North Korean families over two years, prioritizing women who have survived sexual- and gender-based violence. The pilot PSR program allows Canadians to support these government-vetted families for 12 months or until they become self-sufficient, up to a maximum of 36 months in exceptional cases.

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The aim of the program is twofold: to establish a permanent pathway for resettlement of North Korean refugees in Canada, and to inspire other countries to do the same. The immediate goal is to raise $250,000 to sponsor five families initially, with the hope of expanding the program to support more.

With the help of HanVoice, the Canadian government has taken a pivotal legislative step towards remedying the dire circumstances of North Korean defectors. Canadians can take the indispensable practical step by becoming informed, spreading awareness, contributing to fundraising and, once families arrive, welcoming them into their communities.

The success of this pilot project could lead to similar programs for other refugee groups and inspire other countries to adopt PSR models like Canada’s, as the U.S. recently did with its new Welcome Corps.

What is needed now is Canadian leadership to ensure the pilot PSR program sets the stage to help even more of the world’s most vulnerable people find safe haven.

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Grace J. M. Lee
Grace J. M. Lee is a master’s candidate in public policy and public administration and a fellow at the Concordia Research Chair on the Politics of Immigration.  

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