SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A Toronto-based human rights organization says it is launching a private sponsorship program to resettle North Korean refugees in Canada, which will become the third country after South Korea and the U.S. to accept North Koreans.
Sean Chung, executive director of HanVoice, said Tuesday the pilot program created in partnership with Canada’s government aims to bring five North Korean refugee families from Thailand to Canada within the next two years.
Thailand is a major transit country for North Korean refugees because it does not send them back to North Korea or China. China, North Korea’s main ally, has been frequently accused of cracking down on North Korean escapees and forcibly returning them despite the risk of torture and imprisonment.
Among the candidates in Thailand, Canada will prioritize the families of North Korean women who have survived or are at risk of sexual and gender-based violence, Chung said.
Canadians who volunteer as sponsors will be asked to support the families for 12 months or until they become self-sufficient. The sponsorship period could be extended to a maximum of 36 months in exceptional cases, HanVoice said in a statement.
The Canadian Embassy in Seoul didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
“From putting up the money to sponsor the families, to picking them up at the airport, to helping register their children for school, the community will be involved every step of the way,” said Chung, who called the program “uniquely Canadian.”
“For North Korean escapees, the majority of whom are women and who have undergone traumatic experiences in transit, this is a new safe pathway and a fresh new start.”
Tens of thousands of North Koreans are believed to be living in hiding in China. About 34,000 other North Koreans have fled to South Korea, where they can receive citizenship and other benefits under a law that considers North Korea part of its territory.
The U.S. has admitted a much smaller number of North Korean refugees since the adoption of the North Korea Human Rights Act in 2004.
Chung said North Korean escapees have been unable to access Canada’s refugee system, although some have migrated to Canada, Western Europe and Australia after initially settling in South Korea.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.