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North Korea refugees fail to thrive in South: study

15 july 2011, 13:09
North Korea residents. ©RIA Novosti
North Korea residents. ©RIA Novosti
Many refugees from North Korea suffer serious physical and mental health problems and almost all new arrivals fail to integrate or thrive in South Korea, an influential think-tank says.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), in a report released late Thursday, calls for a new approach by Seoul's government including tough laws to prevent discrimination, AFP reports.

"The difficulties of handling just over 20,000 refugees over a few decades should be a warning to those who wish to encourage the collapse of the North rather than a more gentle integration," the Brussels-based ICG said.

The South's Unification Minister Hyun In-Taek said this month the number of refugees to reach the South since the 1950-1953 Korean War stood at 22,000 but would soon reach 30,000-40,000.

"South Korea is prosperous and generous... and yet refugees from the North almost all fail to integrate or thrive," the report said.

In contrast to previous decades when new arrivals were often fighter pilots or senior officials with high propaganda value, many are now women who have endured "terrible deprivation" in the North and abuse on their way to the South, the ICG said.

"Reconfiguring programmes for defectors to take account of this change is essential if new defectors are to find a place in their new home."

The North suffers severe continuing food shortages. Many women who flee initially to neighbouring China fall victim to human traffickers there.

The ICG pointed out that communist North and capitalist South have diverged so drastically over the past six decades of separation that their people are now strangers to each other.

Refugees on average are significantly smaller, worse educated, less healthy and less likely to have useful skills, but must adapt to a country where credentials and networks are essential to find jobs.

Coming from a country where an all-powerful bureaucracy makes almost all life decisions for them, "new arrivals describe a bewildering rush of modernity, consumption and choice that rapidly overwhelms them", the report said.

They also complain of discrimination by Southerners, who stereotype them as heavy drinkers, prone to crime, shirking work and relying on state handouts.

The ICG urged Seoul to try to respond better to refugees' needs by listening to civil society groups and the new arrivals.

The South should also work to increase tolerance of new arrivals and pass strict anti-discrimination laws, while the international community should accept more of the refugees, the ICG said.

The unification ministry runs a mandatory three-month course for new arrivals. This covers career guidance, information on the South and basic everyday skills such as buying a subway ticket, opening a bank account and using a credit card.

The refugees are given financial and housing support upon leaving, but often hand much of their cash to the professional brokers who helped them escape. Many struggle to find decent jobs.

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