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Visit of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to Mongolia: December 2007

Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), paid a visit to Mongolia from 15 to 21 December 2007. He was accompanied by an official of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The purpose of the visit was to assess the impact of the human rights situation in the DPRK on Mongolia. This was the third time that the Special Rapporteur visited the country officially as part of the UN mandate.

The Special Rapporteur thanks warmly the Mongolian authorities for the hospitality and the open access to visit all entities that he sought to meet, and the various UN agencies, in particular the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for facilitating his visit. The Special Rapporteur held meetings with key government officials and personnel, UN agencies, various ambassadors, other concerned actors, and a number of those who have entered Mongolia from the DPRK in search of protection.

The strategic position of Mongolia as a democratic country in North-east Asia - positioned between powerful neighbours and influenced by the desire for peaceful relations with all countries in the region and beyond, should be borne in mind.
Mongolia has been a friend to the “Six Party Talks” (involving the DPRK, China, Russia, USA, Japan and the Republic of Korea) in the quest for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. It hosted the second meeting of the bilateral talks between Japan and the DPRK on possible normalization of relations, complementing the “Six Party Talks”. It is exploring bilateral cooperation with the DPRK, for example in relation to the entry of labour force from the DPRK. The President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK also visited Mongolia during the past year.

The main impact of the situation in the DPRK on Mongolia relates to the influx of DPRK nationals who have exited from the DPRK in search of asylum elsewhere. In recent years, there has been a continuing flow of these persons through a neighbouring country into Mongolia. Mongolia’s policy towards the group has been based upon humanitarian considerations, offering them temporary asylum prior to durable solutions. It has abided by the international principle of non-refoulement (no forced return) of those who seek asylum and has worked closely with the UNHCR in the process. In 2007, several hundred persons, originally from the DPRK, sought protection and assistance in Mongolia and they are housed in various facilities before being processed for resettlement in the Republic of Korea.

From the angle of the country’s engagement with the international system which has bearing on the protection of those seeking asylum in the country, Mongolia is already a party to key human rights treaties and is now considering accession to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol. It is also in the process of acceding to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its Protocols on human trafficking and on human smuggling.

The Special Rapporteur notes commendable progress, since his previous visit, in regard to improvements concerning the facilities sheltering those who have sought asylum from the DPRK. These facilities now offer more space and are better ventilated than in the past. The Special Rapporteur was informed by those who are sheltered at these facilities that they are well cared for and that they look forward to a new life in their final destination country. A recurrent pattern of the life stories of this group is that they left the DPRK clandestinely, under dangerous circumstances, before making their way through a neighbouring country, and ultimately arriving in Mongolia in search of safety. Their reasons for departure from the DPRK vary from political reasons, such as persecution and forced labour, to economic reasons, such as the quest for a new livelihood.

The majority of the group are women, and some landed up in exploitative situations, such as forced marriage, before reaching Mongolia. Both male and female cases indicated to the Special Rapporteur that they had spent several years in the neighbouring country before seeking to leave the country. While some had been subjected to human trafficking, such as forced marriage, at times with children as a result of the union, others had taken up employment in the neighbouring country mentioned, although threatened with uncertainty due to their undocumented status, prior to moving to Mongolia. Nearly all cases that the Special Rapporteur witnessed stated that they had paid or promised to pay substantial sums to smugglers to help find their way to the Mongolian border. The sums demanded by the smugglers were around two to three and a half million Korean won, possibly with an additional “advance” sum. Several had left their families behind either in the DPRK or in the neighbouring country where they had been forced to marry. They were afraid of the consequences of exposure of their identity, especially in regard to potential retribution in the DPRK against their families, and they expressed a strong desire for confidentiality.

On analysis, interestingly the flows of people from the DPRK are often mixed or composite flows with a variety of motivations, with subsequent reasons for moving on after residing for a number of years in a neighbouring country, before finally heading to Mongolia, usually paying their way through a smuggler. Some come as part of small groups arranged by intermediaries. Upon arrival at the border, Mongolian authorities offer them initial shelter before sending them to Ulaanbaatar for more detailed processing prior to resettlement in another country. Clearly a consistent challenge is to afford them protection and assistance, consistent with international human rights standards and/or international refugee law, at all stages of the migration process. This entails the responsibility to protect these persons accessibly and effectively, in the interlinked chain of countries from the source, through transit, to the final destination.

With regard to responses to the situation, the country has cooperated well with the UNHCR, particularly in improving the physical conditions of the facilities sheltering asylum-seekers from the DPRK. It has published in Mongolian a book on refugee-related instruments, as well as the UNHCR Emergency Handbook, with the support of the UNHCR. It is also in the process of joining the International Organization on Migration which will be an additional avenue to address migration issues in the region.

The following preferred orientations are thus underlined:

1. The Special Rapporteur welcomes Mongolia’s consideration of accession to the Refugee Convention and its Protocol, and urges expeditious accession to these treaties, complemented by effective implementation at the national and local levels.
2. The Special Rapporteur welcomes Mongolia’s future accession to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its Protocols on human trafficking and smuggling, and encourages victim-sensitive procedures as part of the implementation process to ensure that victims of human trafficking and/or human smuggling are not criminalized, with due regard to gender sensitivity and the needs of special groups such as children.
3. The Special Rapporteur invites the Mongolian authorities to continue the policy of affording humane treatment to those seeking asylum in the country, with the provision of facilities to meet their physical and psychological needs, including the possibility of counseling in the Korean language to alleviate their traumas, and productive activities, including vocational training and education, pending their departure to the resettlement country.
4. The Special Rapporteur recommends a broad capacity-building process, in cooperation with civil society, to convey a positive image of those who seek asylum in the country, including training of officials on international standards, and awareness-raising among parliamentarians and the public to nurture an attitude of empathy towards those who seek protection in Mongolia.
5. The Special Rapporteur supports continued and strengthened cooperation between the Mongolian authorities and UN agencies, including the UNHCR, to promote and protect human rights, including the rights of those who seek asylum, in accordance with international standards, complemented by procedures to promote the identification of cases needing protection, fostering transparency in the spirit of international solidarity and responsibility-sharing.