UNHCR last month recognised the seven as refugees, including a 13-year-old boy, after they made their way from North Korea to Russia, across Chinese territory. The refugee agency informed both the Chinese and the Russian governments about its decision to grant them refugee status. It also expressed readiness to resettle the group in a third country. But despite UNHCR's pleas, Russia deported the seven to China on December 30.
UNHCR then appealed to Chinese authorities to refrain from sending them back to North Korea. But on Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry told UNHCR that the refugees had been sent to North Korea. The ministry did not specify when they were deported or how it happened.
"We are gravely concerned by the Chinese decision to deport people whom UNHCR has recognised as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention," said High Commissioner Sadako Ogata. She also urged the North Korean authorities to treat the seven deported refugees humanely.
Both China and Russia are signatories of the 1951 Convention -- the cornerstone of international refugee law, which clearly bans "refoulement," or forcible return of refugees to areas where they could face danger or persecution.
In a letter sent to the Chinese government on Wednesday, UNHCR protested the violation of the 1951 Convention and fundamental humanitarian principles.
UNHCR has been in regular contact with Chinese authorities over the past two years in an effort to address the issue of North Koreans in China, some of whom definitely meet the criteria for refugee status.
UNHCR strongly urges China to refrain from fresh deportations of North Koreans in the future.