When Roots/Routes Matter: The Appearance & Disappearance of Asylum Seeking Families from the DPRK in Canada

Principal Investigator: Ann H. Kim (Sociology)
Funding: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

Description: Between 2010 and 2014, hundreds to thousands of asylum seekers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (a.k.a. North Korea) arrived in Canada, many with children, hoping to obtain refugee status. Some of the initial applicants were accepted while later applicants in this period have, for the most part, been rejected. Since 2013, Canada has been verifying fingerprints with the government of the Republic of Korea (a.k.a. South Korea) and discovered many asylum seekers, though not all, initially settled there; the Constitution of the Republic of Korea (ROK) recognizes North Koreans as South Korean nationals. Since asylum seekers given legal status in one country cannot apply for asylum in another country, North Koreans who migrate through South Korea cannot obtain refugee status elsewhere; they are identified as South Korean. This effectively shuts Canada’s door and explains the drop in, and perhaps the end of, North Koreans seeking protection and settlement in Canada, at least for now, unless there is a policy shift, or a viable, alternate passage to Canada emerges. As far as those working on the ground can tell, there are some North Koreans who obtained legal status in Canada, and a few still awaiting decision, but news travelled quickly and very few North Korean families have arrived in Canada since 2014. In fact, Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada data show only one refugee application was approved in 2014.

Although larger refugee populations clearly deserve research attention, this brief and fleeting wave of North Koreans, who will soon escape research attention, also raises many questions for Canadian policy-makers and on the ground practitioners, who could influence Canada’s position. Canada’s policy is negotiable; the former Citizenship and Immigration Canada minister, Jason Kenney, claimed during the previous federal election that Canada would recognize North Koreans as refugees if the Conservative government is re-elected. This suggests that a larger wave could be in Canada’s future.

The questions driving this exploratory study include:

  1. How do domestic and international policies and refugee legalities affect the movementof North Korean refugee families to Canada? How do such policies affect families with young children and youth? If policies change, can we expect a larger wave of North Korean migrants?
  2. What does the construction of North Koreans as South Korean, and thus illegal/illegitimate refugees, by policymakers mean to families?
  1. What do North Korean families know about Canada prior to their arrival? What are their experiences here and that of their children?
  2. Given there are relatively recent but established Korean immigrant communities across the country, Canada might be a welcoming place for North Koreans who speak a shared language with South Koreans. How have they and their children been received by local Koreans? What would facilitate their integration?A number of studies discuss the integration challenges among North Koreans in South

Korea and provide some indication as to why they would want to seek asylum elsewhere (Bidet 2009; Chung 2008; Roh and Lee 2016; Song 2012). Several studies have focused on North Korean children and youth in South Korea (Kim 2016; Lee 2014; Sohn 2013). However, we know significantly less about their experiences elsewhere and we are compelled to ask, Can Canada be a more permanent place for them?

To begin this study, we will compile annual data on North Koreans in Canada from 2010 to 2017 using KCWA, IRB, and IRCC (Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada) data to examine in-migration patterns. In-depth qualitative data will be obtained through a small number of interviews with: 1) up to six local experts and community leaders; 2) up to three North Korean families; and 3) one focus group discussion with KCWA settlement workers. Although a larger number of interviews with North Korean parents would improve the trustworthiness of the findings, the ESPO partners believe that it would be difficult to recruit more families in light of the dwindling population, the insecurity of North Korean lives, and the sensitivity of the topic.