ICAS Special Contribution

No. 2003-0108-CxR

Insane Asylum Policy:
The U.N. nurtures terrorists and
lets real refugees fend for themselves

Claudia Rosett

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3992
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic Sketch & Links: Claudia Rosett

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge a generous contribution, with a written permission, of this paper by Claudia Rosett which appeared on the Opinion Journal from The Wall Street Journal editorial page, Wednesday, January 8, 2003: sjk]

Insane Asylum Policy

The U.N. nurtures terrorists and lets real refugees fend for themselves.


However inane the wanderings in Iraq of chief inspector Hans Blix, there are some things the United Nations is presumed to do well, and high on that list is the worthy cause of helping refugees. All the more appalling, then, to see the gutless, heartless and above all stupid priorities now guiding U.N. policy toward refugees in the Middle East and East Asia.

I'm talking about the U.N. practice of lavishing more than a quarter of a billion bucks a year on special, long-term care for the Palestinians, darlings of every despot in the Middle East, while abandoning utterly a large group of refugees who are far hungrier, more dispossessed and mortally in need of urgent help: the North Koreans.

It's a contrast all the more bizarre when one considers that many of the U.N.-supported Palestinians have turned their refugee camps into bomb factories, while the hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees, almost all hiding in China and ignored by the U.N., are not in the habit of blowing up anybody. They are simply fleeing the murderous regime of Kim Jong Il, under whose rule more than a million people have starved to death, and in whose shrouded prison camps scores of prisoners, possibly hundreds, die daily.

For the Palestinians, the U.N. provides an exclusive agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, or UNRWA, set up solely to minister to their needs. This service goes well beyond the usually transient attentions offered by the U.N. to workaday refugees in most parts of the world by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees--deemed good enough for everybody else. The Palestinian-dedicated UNRWA set up shop way back in 1950, in the aftermath of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. It was supposed to be a source of temporary help. Instead, due chiefly to a large Arab voting bloc at the U.N., backed by a wide assortment of fellow dictators, UNRWA has become a fixture, a sprawling welfare program, with its mandate repeatedly extended and now prolonged until at least 2005.

Over the decades, the number of Palestinians registered on the UNRWA dole has expanded from the original 750,000 to almost four million. UNRWA has become a vast entitlement program, with a network of headquarters in New York, Geneva, Cairo, Amman and Gaza and a staff of about 120 international workers and 22,000 Palestinians, dispensing UNRWA rations and services in or near 59 camps, which, like UNRWA itself, have become fixtures. Rather like the misery that befell America's inner cities at their own welfare zenith, the predictable result is an angry population prone to violence. Except in this case, the horror, not to mention the squalor, has been vastly aggravated by Yasser Arafat's managerial style of summarily butchering moderate Palestinians, cultivating terrorist tactics and exalting above the interests of his people his own ambition to remain dictator-for-life.

For suffusing this arrangement with aid over the decades, UNRWA nets a slot all its own on the U.N. docket, which helps greatly in raising contributions to an annual budget that last year alone totaled more than $280 million--about one-third of that donated by U.S. taxpayers, with the next biggest chunk coming from the European Union. With these resources, UNRWA provides free medical care, schooling and in some cases food. This goes to needy innocents. But it also goes to the folks who danced for joy on Sept. 11, were just seen once again burning the American flag and cheering for Saddam Hussein, and who in UNRWA-supported schools have glorified the practice of sending people rigged as human cluster bombs to blow Israelis to bits. Even so, according to an UNRWA spokesman in New York, a Ramallah native, the aid is too meager.

What with the expanding UNRWA rolls, the aid per registered refugee now averages about $60 a year, or about one-third, after inflation, of 1970s levels. But before anyone concludes that the answer is to pour even more cash into UNRWA, consider the situation of the North Korean refugees. For them, the attention and aid doled out routinely to the Palestinians would qualify as an unimaginable feast.

Since the mid-1990s, as they fled famine caused by Stalin-style oppression complete with death camps, a growing number of North Koreans have taken the only escape route possible: bribing their way or traveling secretly into neighboring China. There they find no official help whatsoever--not from the UNHCR, and certainly not from the Chinese government. Beijing hunts down these refugees, labels them "economic migrants," and hands them back to North Korea, where they typically land in prison camps or are executed for having tried to escape.

For almost all those who manage to hide in China, evading the security dragnets, there is no safe haven. A few score have run the Chinese police gauntlet to storm the grounds of foreign legations and negotiate a way to true asylum, usually in South Korea. But for the vast majority of these refugees, the only help comes from underground networks of private relief workers, who are themselves at high risk of ending up in Chinese jails--as has happened to several this past year.

Beyond that, there is nothing. No free food, no shelter, no medical care, no schooling, not even the recognition that they are, in fact, refugees. These are people so desperate that recently several who had made it from North Korea into China ended up trying to flee to Vietnam.

And where in this hell do we find the U.N.?

Sitting on its hands, with UNHCR officials snug in their Beijing office saying that China will not allow them to help these people, or even recognize them as refugees, so what can the UNHCR do?

Plenty, if the U.N. bothered to insist on upholding its own mandate and promises. Not only is the Chinese government a signatory to the U.N.'s 1951 convention and additional protocols guaranteeing protection for refugees; Beijing actually holds a seat on the UNHCR's executive committee. Beyond that, and even more germane, China and the UNHCR signed a bilateral treaty in 1995 that guarantees each side the right to call for swift and binding arbitration in the event of a dispute over refugee policy. All the UNHCR has to do is invoke it.

But don't hold your breath. The scandal here is that neither Secretary-General Kofi Annan nor UNHCR head Ruud Lubbers seems to care enough to make even a peep, let alone enforce their own conventions and treaties to help these famished, fleeing North Koreans. When Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas visited the UNHCR office in China last month, seeking ways to help the refugees, he found, as he told me, "not much interest in pressing the Chinese."

Not only is this U.N. behavior craven and cruel, it is dumb. Were the U.N. to insist on providing an accessible safe haven, or merely safe passage, for refugees flowing out of North Korea through China, the result could be not only the saving of thousands of lives, but quite possibly an exodus that could end the menace emanating from Pyongyang by bringing down the regime. China might not like the idea, but under genuine international pressure, Beijing might be persuaded to cooperate.

All of which suggests it is high time that someone--President Bush, perhaps?--took a moment to sort out these twisted refugee priorities. The business of U.N. refugee policy should be not with entitlements, but with emergencies. Scrap UNRWA, it's had its half century and then some. If the U.N. wants to run a special project devoted to the most vital and urgent refugee sufferings of the day, those with the true claim are the North Koreans now hiding or running for their lives inside China.

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