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06CHIANGMAI79 NORTH KOREAN REFUGEES’ UNDERGROUND RAILROAD MAKING MORE

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“”65369″,”5/25/2006 5:07″,”06CHIANGMAI79″,”Consulate Chiang Mai”,

 

“CONFIDENTIAL”,””,”VZCZCXRO6936

 

PP RUEHDT RUEHHM

 

DE RUEHCHI #0079/01 1450507

 

ZNY CCCCC ZZH

 

P 250507Z MAY 06

 

FM AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI

 

TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0194

 

INFO RUEHCHI/AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI PRIORITY 0224

 

RUEHBK/AMEMBASSY BANGKOK PRIORITY 0476

 

RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS

 

RUEHUL/AMEMBASSY SEOUL PRIORITY 0001

 

RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING PRIORITY 0024

 

RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 0006

 

RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 0001

 

RUEHCN/AMCONSUL CHENGDU PRIORITY 0030

 

RUEHSH/AMCONSUL SHENYANG PRIORITY 0015

 

RUEHUM/AMEMBASSY ULAANBAATAR PRIORITY 0001″,”C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 CHIANG MAI 000079

 

 

 

SIPDIS

 

 

 

SIPDIS

 

 

 

E.O. 12958: DECL: 5/25/2016

 

TAGS: PREF, PGOV, TH, KN

 

SUBJECT: NORTH KOREAN REFUGEES\’ UNDERGROUND RAILROAD MAKING MORE

 

FREQUENT STOPS IN NORTHERN THAILAND

 

 

 

CHIANG MAI 00000079 001.2 OF 004

 

 

 

CLASSIFIED BY: John Spykerman, Political Officer, Consulate

 

General , State Dept.

 

REASON: 1.4 (d)

 

 

 

Classified by PolOff John Spykerman for Reason 1.4 (d).

 

 

 

(C) SUMMARY. The flow of North Korean refugees crossing the

 

Mekong River into northern Thailand appears to be increasing, as

 

local Royal Thai Government (RTG) immigration and border police

 

say they are at a loss on how to effectively manage the growing

 

number of North Koreans who enter Thailand illegally after

 

spending months on an Underground Railroad-style trek through

 

China and into Thailand. Meanwhile, evidence suggests that the

 

stream of refugees is unlikely to decrease, with a network of

 

Christian missionary organizations in Thailand and southern

 

China cooperating to bring in more refugees through Yunnan

 

province, Burma, and Laos and into Thailand\’s Chiang Rai

 

province, where most are detained and later sent for refugee

 

processing in Bangkok and then on to South Korea. END SUMMARY.

 

 

 

2. (SBU) For several years, North Korean refugees have

 

escaped their home country and, with the help of missionary

 

organizations and paid travel brokers, made their way south

 

through China and the Mekong River. Refugees can spend months or

 

even years transiting China, an experience that leaves them

 

vulnerable to exploitation and extortion. But increasing numbers

 

are willing to take the risk. So far this year, Chiang Rai

 

immigration officials have detained more than 100 North Koreans,

 

compared to 108 in all of 2005 and just 29 in 2004.

 

 

 

3. (SBU) Following the arrest of an AmCit charged with

 

transporting undocumented North Koreans in Chiang Rai, PolOff

 

discussed the refugee issue with local officials and others

 

familiar with missionary operations in northern Thailand and

 

southern China. What emerged was a clearer picture of the path

 

refugees take to reach Thailand, the lengthy process of

 

detainment and transport to Bangkok, the role of missionary

 

organizations in fostering these refugee movements, and the

 

struggles faced by local officials and the refugees themselves

 

once they arrive in Thailand. In addition, there are hints that

 

future challenges await should this trend continue to overwhelm

 

local authorities\’ ad hoc means of dealing with the issue.

 

 

 

The Long Road to Thailand, and Then Another Long Road to Bangkok

 

——————————————— ————–

 

————————

 

 

 

4. (C) The journey from North Korea to Thailand is long,

 

arduous, and costly. Based on police reports and discussions

 

with those who have met the refugees, the North Koreans tend to

 

be women with children or older men, and only occasionally

 

working age males. According to one person who has assisted RTG

 

police with Korean translation, the refugees often spend months

 

in China, working illegally to raise the funds to continue their

 

trek to Thailand. Because of their illegal status in any of the

 

countries they transit, they often endure exploitation and

 

extortion by employers, travel brokers, and local law

 

enforcement officials. Help does exist, however, in the form of

 

Christian missionaries and churches, which assist some refugees

 

to move through China and aid them once they arrive in Thailand.

 

 

 

5. (C) After reaching Yunnan province in southern China,

 

refugees and their handlers attempt to blend in with the growing

 

flow of river trade moving downstream to Southeast Asia. After a

 

brief stop in Burma or Laos to plot their entry, refugees cross

 

into Thailand in groups of 6-10 people. Handlers accompany the

 

refugees into Burma or Laos and coordinate their crossing of the

 

Mekong, with some reports estimating that several hundred North

 

Koreans are waiting in Muang Mom district in Laos to cross into

 

Thailand. Chiang Rai officials expressed frustration that their

 

counterparts in Laos and Burma were unwilling to coordinate to

 

better patrol the Mekong for undocumented foreigners. Since

 

North Koreans are trying to reach Thailand anyway, officials in

 

Laos and Burma apparently prefer that the refugees make their

 

way unhindered as quickly as possible through their countries.

 

 

 

6. (C) Most refugees attempt to cross the Mekong at three

 

points in Chiang Rai province – near the towns of Chiang Saen

 

and Chiang Khong opposite Laos, and Mae Sai opposite Burma.

 

These three river ports, located in Thailand\’s tip of the remote

 

Golden Triangle border area, are the most convenient and safest

 

places to cross. Police say refugees arrive well-dressed with

 

two changes of clothes and around 300-400 yuan (about USD 40-50)

 

 

 

CHIANG MAI 00000079 002.2 OF 004

 

 

 

on hand. Once on land, most are quickly spotted by law

 

enforcement and brought to the local jail. There an initial

 

assessment is made and within two days they are sent to Chiang

 

Rai for prosecution (normally a 1,000-baht fine, about USD 25,

 

or five more days in jail). Following that, refugees move to an

 

immigration detention center in Mae Sai for up to a month before

 

being transported to Bangkok, where the RTG, the UN High

 

Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and South Korean Embassy

 

resolve their cases.

 

 

 

A Modern Day Underground Railroad

 

——————————————— –

 

 

 

7. (C) The May 6 arrest of AmCit Phillip Martin, a

 

26-year-old college student living in Chiang Rai initially

 

charged with helping six North Koreans cross the border

 

illegally at Chiang Saen, drew attention to the role Christian

 

missionaries play in the operation of the Underground

 

Railroad-style network of refugee movement. Although Martin

 

first came to Thailand as a missionary six years ago, a

 

subsequent investigation of his case has led post to conclude

 

that he was probably not part of an operation to smuggle

 

refugees into the country, and that he likely, as he said,

 

picked up the refugees on a road near the river thinking they

 

were Japanese tourists who had missed the last bus back into

 

town. Police told PolOff they have reached the same conclusion

 

and hope to bring the formal charges to an end shortly. However,

 

investigations by post and local police into this case and

 

others reveal hints of a complex network of organizations

 

throughout Asia working to help refugees escape North Korea,

 

transit China, and reach UN or Republic of Korea Government

 

(ROKG) offices in SE Asian capitals.

 

 

 

8. (C) A Chiang Rai police report given to PolOff lists some

 

organizations in Thailand that police suspect to be behind the

 

refugee flow, including the Korean Presbyterian Mission in

 

Thailand, which has an office in Chiang Rai. Provincial

 

officials estimate there are about 700 Korean nationals living

 

in the province, most involved in missionary work. Korean and

 

American (including Korean-American) missionaries are

 

well-represented in northern Thailand. Most Christian

 

organizations cater to local hill tribes, but some take

 

advantage of Thailand\’s relatively secure confines to serve as

 

bases of support for missionaries in neighboring countries, such

 

as China, where operations are forced underground.

 

 

 

9. (C) Because of ongoing police efforts to identify refugee

 

contacts among the local Korean population, few local Koreans or

 

American missionaries are willing to speak openly about what

 

they know. Still, some suggested that the network of local

 

missionary organizations coordinating with their counterparts

 

inside China has been in operation for years, even if the

 

numbers of refugees detained by local police has surged only

 

recently. Indeed, in a high-profile 2004 incident,

 

Korean-American missionary Jeffrey Bahk drowned while helping

 

refugees cross the Mekong from Burma. Those with connections to

 

the missionary community told PolOff they believe organizations

 

in Thailand are in constant contact with China-based

 

missionaries, who facilitate North Korean refugee movement

 

through southern China. Left unsaid are whether missionaries

 

make the trip from Yunnan to Thailand themselves and to what

 

extent Thailand-based organizations assist refugees here and

 

know of specific arrivals.

 

 

 

Policies Made in Bangkok Leave Locals Feeling Left Out of the

 

Loop~

 

——————————————— ————–

 

—————————-

 

 

 

10. (C) While local officials are aware of agreements among

 

the RTG, South Korean Embassy, and UNHCR to process cases in

 

Bangkok, many say they feel trapped between efforts to enforce

 

immigration laws and operate within the confines of these

 

discreet agreements on how to handle North Koreans. Chiang Rai

 

officials know little of how their counterparts in Bangkok

 

resolve these cases, while South Korean diplomats rarely visit

 

the area personally. In fact, officers from the Japanese

 

Consulate General in Chiang Mai have made more recent inquiries

 

on North Korean refugees to local authorities than the South

 

Korean embassy, according to one official. Because of this

 

disconnect between Bangkok and provincial officials, many fear

 

the status quo procedure used now to detain refugees may not

 

hold up to increased numbers coming across the river, especially

 

 

 

CHIANG MAI 00000079 003.2 OF 004

 

 

 

given a lack of funds at the provincial level to meet the costs

 

associated with detaining refugees.

 

 

 

11. (C) As with any attempted border crossing, police first

 

attempt to ensure that anyone trying to cross illegally does not

 

reach the shore, and suspicious looking boats are turned away.

 

But police realize this action is futile – if they force a boat

 

to return to Laos with North Koreans aboard, the refugees will

 

simply try again and again until they are successful, as Laotian

 

government officials have no interest in detaining refugees who

 

are trying to leave Laos anyway. Police fear that as word

 

spreads that arrests lead to processing in Bangkok and eventual

 

resettlement, ever more North Koreans will attempt to enter

 

Thailand in Chiang Rai.

 

 

 

12. (C) More refugees will further drain local resources and

 

capacity to manage the situation. Chiang Rai officials and

 

others who have interacted with these refugees say police and

 

immigration officials are straining to cover the food and

 

transportation costs associated with detaining and moving the

 

refugees. Moreover, police have no staff translators and are

 

largely reliant on local volunteer Koreans for help. UNHCR is

 

serving as an intermediary between the Thai government and the

 

ROK Embassy in an effort to assist local authorities in these

 

areas. The ROKG has told UNHCR it will provide funding and is

 

currently considering proposals provided by the RTG that would

 

include discreet funding for translators and facility upgrades.

 

 

 

~ While Refugees Face a Harder Time in Local Custody

 

——————————————— ————–

 

———-

 

 

 

13. (C) John Lee, a South Korean national who owns a guest

 

house in Chiang Rai and has helped local police with Korean

 

translations, said he has noticed that as the local legal system

 

is overrun with refugee cases, it is less able to adequately

 

care for those being detained. Lee said that on a recent visit,

 

refugees asked him for help acquiring food and said they were

 

not getting enough from immigration officials. Lee and others

 

believe that local police confiscate the refugees\’ money,

 

keeping it for themselves or using it to buy the refugees\’ food.

 

Lee and others said refugees were not getting proper medical

 

attention and suffered from fatigue and other ailments after

 

their long trek.

 

 

 

14. (C) Although Chiang Rai police insist nearly all North

 

Korean refugees crossing the Mekong seek to get caught soon

 

after reaching Thai soil rather than make their own way to

 

Bangkok, other observers believe more were crossing uncaught, as

 

word spread that conditions inside local detention centers were

 

harsh, with the goal of heading toward Korean churches in

 

Bangkok before formally requesting asylum. With little public

 

funds with which to move refugees through the legal system,

 

local police catch some North Koreans, liberate them of their

 

funds, and send them on their way unreported, Lee said.

 

 

 

COMMENT: More Refugees Could Seek Asylum Outside of RTG-ROKG

 

Process

 

——————————————— ————–

 

—————————————-

 

 

 

15. (C) If word continues to spread that Chiang Rai officials

 

are less able to securely and humanely detain refugees before

 

sending them to Bangkok, it is likely refugees may seek more

 

direct routes to Bangkok outside of any agreed-upon process

 

between the RTG and ROKG. Furthermore, if reports that the ROKG

 

is reducing incentives for refugees to move to South Korea are

 

true, it is possible more North Koreans may seek relocation to

 

third countries, a development that could increase walk-in

 

asylum requests at our embassies and consulates in Thailand and

 

elsewhere. Efforts by the RTG, ROKG, and UNHCR to better fund

 

Chiang Rai operations will improve the humanitarian conditions

 

of the refugees being detained, but it is unclear whether a

 

moderate boost in local capacities can keep an ever larger

 

number of refugees fully within the legal system as it is now

 

structured.

 

 

 

16. (C) Post has been extremely cautious in pursuing this

 

information, as we are acutely aware news of North Koreans

 

recently resettled in the U.S. combined with an increasing

 

inability of local RTG officials to handle the flow of refugees

 

across their northern border may draw more attention to USG

 

locations as targets for asylum requests. However, it is evident

 

 

 

CHIANG MAI 00000079 004.2 OF 004

 

 

 

that missionary organizations and refugee handlers are focused

 

on bringing more North Koreans through China and into Thailand

 

in the near future. The recent rise in the numbers crossing the

 

Mekong may yet be the tip of the iceberg.

 

MURPHY

 

 

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Written by thaicables

June 12, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] a 2006 cable from the US consulate in Chiang Mai (06CHIANGMAI79), one official predicted that the increase in North Korean refugee arrivals – then still […]


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