Jason looked down as he crossed and uncrossed his hands in his lap. The 24-year-old gets visibly distressed whenever he talks about growing up in North Korea.
“It’s very difficult for me,” said Jason as he sat with his mother and stepfather at a conference table topped with orchids in their lawyer’s downtown Toronto office. He requested to use a pseudonym for fear of being discriminated against by those who don’t know they’re from North Korea, and because they’re under threat of being deported back there unless something drastic happens.
“We are terrified of having to leave,” Jason said as he tugged on the sleeve of his grey sweatshirt. He paused and his eyes widened at the thought.
Jason and his family have lived in Toronto since 2010 after they defected from the totalitarian regime accused of routinely committing atrocities against its own population. The problem is they lied on their Canadian refugee application by withholding the fact that they lived in South Korea for a short time after they defected. It’s a lie that helped them get refugee status in Canada, but could now be the reason why they and many other families might get forced out of the place they now call home.
Last year, Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada sent out 150 letters to people of North Korean origin warning them that they might lose their permanent residency status. This is because of discrepancies the department found on their applications including that many held South Korean citizenship, which would make them ineligible for refugee status as Canada regards South Korea as a safe country that does not produce refugees.
'NORTH KOREAN DREAMERS'
According to numbers provided to VICE News by the Canada Border Services Agency, there are currently 95 North Koreans “in different stages of the removal process,” although an agency spokesperson would not elaborate on what exactly that means in these cases, citing privacy concerns. It's also not clear how many of those North Koreans had been granted refugee status.
The numbers also show that nine North Koreans were officially removed by the CBSA last year, a drop from the 24 removed in 2016, and the 44 removed in 2015. However, North Korean advocacy groups estimate that thousands more have left the country voluntarily to avoid formal deportation.
“I’m calling them the ‘North Korean dreamers,’” said Jacqueline An, a lawyer from South Korea who’s made it her mission to advocate for families like Jason’s who are in legal limbo when it comes to their status in Canada. An is doing this advocacy in addition to her usual criminal law work, and it’s consuming most of her spare time.
She’s borrowing the term “dreamers” from the nickname for the group of young unauthorized immigrants who were brought into the U.S. as children — the majority of whom are from Mexico — who were spared deportation and granted a path to American citizenship under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy implemented by the Barack Obama administration.
An says she has taken on at least 65 cases involving North Koreans who received letters from Canada’s immigration ministry late last year informing them that their status in Canada is in limbo because of their status in South Korea.
“What’s detrimental for these ‘dreamers’ is that they are potentially facing danger of North Korean spies [who] might come and kidnap them. Or their families back home in North Korea will be eliminated or put in labour camps. That’s the biggest fear,” she said. “The second is that they are discriminated against and marginalized in South Korea.”
An says she met with representatives from the immigration minister’s office last December to urge the minister to use his discretion to create a special class of refugee status for the North Koreans who say they will face hardship and even violence if they’re forced to return to South Korea.
“I’m basically circumventing the law going through policy right now. Because easily they will lose, they will be sent back,” said An, who added that she worked on the campaign to help secure the release of Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, who was detained in North Korea in 2015 and released last year.
"What I’m doing is very provocative in a sense that it’s never been done before,” she said.
A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen confirmed to VICE News in an email that representatives did meet with North Korean advocacy groups in December and “have been contacted by other concerned stakeholders.”
“We did advise of how the general process works and that South Korea is durable solution for North Koreans,” wrote the spokesperson. “We did make it clear that each case is evaluated on its own merits on a case by case basis. Finally we told the group we are unable to speculate on the possibility of any future policy.”
'GETTING OUT OF HELL'
Jason, who's currently a university student in Toronto, let out a sigh. He recounted living on the streets a small city on the eastern coast of North Korea, at the age of 10, after his mother was suddenly arrested by North Korean authorities for reasons they say are unknown, and his other relatives couldn’t afford to take care of him.
“I had to spend my days going through the garbage,” he said, trying not to cry. “I got so desperate one time I had to eat a rat.”
His mother, who requested to be identified as Yoon, ended up being transferred from the prison to a hospital due to poor health, and was able to pay smugglers to take her to China and then to South Korea, where she got a job and fell in love. By 2008, Yoon said she had put together a few thousand dollars to pay other brokers to locate Jason in North Korea and smuggle him into China, and other countries, and eventually to Seoul where they were finally reunited.
But as is the experience with many North Koreans who end up in South Korea, they were targeted and ridiculed there, and accused of being spies. Jason said the other kids in his neighbourhood beat him up and called him names. Things got so bad that he spent all of his time inside. His mother and stepfather were constantly harassed at work. His stepfather says he got fired from a convenience store after his boss accused him of driving away customers.
“It was like being in hell again after getting out of hell,” said Jason. And so the three of them got on a flight to Toronto in the fall of 2010, and claimed refugee status when they landed.
“I always thought that Canada was the best country in the world,” said Yoon. “Multiculturalism and openness.”
But because telling Canadian immigration officials the truth about their South Korean status and the fact that they lived there would automatically make them ineligible for refugee status, they said they came through China. And they started building new lives in Canada.
It was everything they had hoped for and more: they were accepted by the community, gainfully employed, and Jason is on track to graduate in the next couple of years.
“Do they look like a North Korean stereotype to you?” asked lawyer Jacqueline An, pointing out the family’s stylish clothing and English skills. “All they want is to be good citizens and contribute to our society.”
Then last October, Jason’s family received letters from the federal immigration agency informing them that their status as a protected person may be rescinded, and therefore their application for permanent residency may be refused. “[Y]ou and/or your family member(s) do not appear to meet Immigration Requirements,” reads the letter provided by Jason to VICE News.
'END OF THE WORLD'
A growing chorus of other North Korean escapees living in Canada have shared similar stories since then, including families with children who were born in Canada. Like Jason, many say that if they were forced to return to South Korea, they could be targeted and their quality of life would be in jeopardy.
Other North Korean human rights advocacy groups are also urging Canada to take steps to allow these people to stay, arguing they were in desperate situations when they lied on their refugee applications.
Christopher Kim, executive director of HanVoice who works with North Korean defectors living in the Greater Toronto Area, has testified on this issue at Parliament and plans to ramp up advocacy efforts this year in light of the intent by the Immigration agency to crack down on North Korean refugees.
“A lot of them now are feeling an enormous amount of pressure and stress because they’re unsure when their status is going to be revoked,” Kim told VICE News. “A lot of them are only now starting to get the advice they need from legal practitioners to think about what other sorts of claims they have before they are finally deported.”
Kim is also calling on the ministry to explore opening up an overseas route that would allow Canadians to sponsor North Korean refugees before they enter the country. Similar programs exist for refugees from conflict-ridden nations like Syria or harsh dictatorships like Eritrea. He admits there are significant complexities involved in such a move. In particular, the South Korean constitution recognizes all Koreans on the Korean peninsula as South Korean, and therefore any North Korean who escapes is considered a South Korean.
He pointed to the U.S. government, which adopted the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004, that allows North Korean refugees to come to the States. It's an example of something that Canada could pursue. However, the Act has yet to be reauthorized by Congress, and has helped only a couple hundred refugees resettle there since it came into effect.
“It is time that the Canadian government took a stance so that North Koreans could access other countries like Canada,” Kim said. “If Canada actually just had policy on this, that would clear a lot of this legal ambiguity.”
In the meantime, Jason and his family are preparing for the worst.
“It would be the end of our world,” said Yoon. “I’m sorry to the Canadian government that we weren’t honest.”
This article has been updated to address privacy concerns.