The Korea Herald


UNHCR ups efforts to protect N.K. defectors

Seoul chief praises Korea’s refugee law, seeks celebrity goodwill ambassador to raise awareness

By Shin Hyon-hee

Published : March 2, 2014 - 20:05

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This is the second installment in a new series featuring the growing number of United Nations offices in Korea. ― Ed. 

With a steady influx of North Korean defectors into the South, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees is ramping up diplomatic efforts and public campaigns to ensure their safe passage and preclude any repatriation, its Seoul chief said.

Calls have been growing for multinational bodies to take bolder steps to protect North Koreans in the face of dire living conditions, rampant human rights violations and China’s persistent deportation of escapees from its reclusive neighbor.

Dirk Hebecker, representative for UNHCR Korea, says his agency provides financial and technical support for defectors on their way to South Korea, while boosting cooperation with neighboring countries and other U.N. entities.

“Our main advocacy with countries in the region is to allow for safe passage of North Korean defectors to come to South Korea if they wish so,” he said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

“But it’s not always falling on their ears, which makes it quite difficult.” 

Dirk Hebecker, representative of the U.N. Refugee Agency’s office in Seoul. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald) Dirk Hebecker, representative of the U.N. Refugee Agency’s office in Seoul. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

Despite “high expectations associated with the U.N. brand,” its role remains inevitably limited, as shown in the forced return of nine young North Korean defectors by Laos through China last May.

Beijing has long been taking flak for expelling the defectors, whom it calls “illegal economic migrants,” knowing that they would face torture, labor camps or even death back home.

After the incident, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged North Korea’s neighbors to comply with the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids turning over “victims of persecution.”

“We do believe that countries that send back people against their will to conditions where their life or physical integrity may be in danger, or their family could be in danger are unacceptable,” Hebecker said.

A recent report by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that detailed “systematic, widespread and gross” human rights breaches in the communist state “contributes to advocating more for people who come from a country with those conditions to be protected,” he added.

Specialized in Southeast Asian and Russian affairs, the former diplomat joined the UNHCR in 1993 while serving at the German Embassy in Vietnam.

He initially took up a one-year project with the agency in Hanoi with little knowledge about the refugee issue, but the chance soon turned into a “life love affair,” he said.

Hebecker has since worked at the Geneva headquarters and its offices in Georgia, the Central African Republic, Albania, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. He also spent three years as a senior human rights adviser to the representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Moscow from 2008-11.

He took his current post in last April.

UNHCR Korea set out in 2001 as a liaison office under the organization’s Tokyo unit and elevated to a mission in 2006. It is chiefly tasked with promoting the issue to the government and public here and engaging in fund-raising campaigns.

Hebecker’s term began shortly before the enactment of Asia’s first standalone refugee act in July 2013, which governs the application for refugee status and social security, assistance, education and other benefits here.

Seoul adopted the 1951 Refugee Convention in 1992.

Critics say the landmark law’s interpretation of refugee is somewhat narrow or opaque, and it does not spell out sufficient financial support for asylum applicants during the lengthy screening process.

Yet it is a “generous” legislation which would make Korea a “good member of the global refugee protection family,” according to Hebecker.

Among the notable features is a provision in the law on the possibility to admit people who were recognized as refugees in a third country.

His office currently provides advice and support to the Ministry of Justice for the resettlement program, which could begin as early as 2014.

“It sets an example in the region but it is also a remarkable law that is in compliance with international standards,” he said.

Given the “homogeneous” nature of the Korean society, Hebecker stressed the significance of partnerships with other government and non-government organizations in raising awareness of the issue.

UNHCR Korea runs free legal clinics for refugees at some universities in Seoul, and works with fast fashion retailer Uniqlo in street fundraising events. He is now looking for a celebrity goodwill ambassador to maximize the effect of its campaign, as actress Angelina Jolie does for the agency’s global promotion.

Last June, Saenuri Party chairman Hwang Woo-yea led the inception of “Friends of UNHCR” consisting of some 30 lawmakers.

The ministry set up a resettlement center for refugees in Incheon last year but has yet to open it in the face of stiff opposition from residents who fear a surge in crime rates and plunge in property prices.

“I think in general the government is responsible for making the ‘opening’ of the country happen, has done a lot already to promote multiculturalism and embrace people from different nationalities to live here,” Hebecker said.

“But refugees are a very particular group for whom integration is not just the same as for migrant workers or other foreigners. … They arrived here also with trauma of what they had gone through, so they need more of psychosocial support. It takes much more.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (