Written by Mats van den Boogert
Two months ago I was sitting in my municipality’s civil administration office, waiting for my number to be shown on one of the many screens in the large waiting hall. I was there with my expired passport and other required documents to request a new passport. Almost everyone residing in a developed country can relate to this situation: you book an appointment to hand over some documents and after a week you can pick up your fresh new passport. For most people, including myself, this process is merely a slightly annoying, but important task we have to do every ten years or so. However, for millions of people around the world even owning a passport is an unknown phenomenon. These people are what we call “stateless” individuals. It is estimated that from the ten million “stateless” individuals, one third are children.
But when is an individual considered stateless? According to Article 1 of the 1954 Convention to the Status of Stateless Persons, an individual is stateless when he/she is not considered as a national by any state under its laws. The reason as to how someone becomes stateless varies between countries and their laws. According to a report of the UN Refugee Agency, discrimination in different forms play a central role in the issue. For example, in 27 countries women are unable to pass down their nationality to their children. In the situation where the father is absent, this creates a big problem as these children will not be acknowledged as citizens of their country and thereby become stateless.
Being stateless brings disastrous consequences, it is not just a matter of not being able to vote. Individuals without citizenship have no legal protection and are often restricted from education, employment, healthcare, registration of birth, marriage, property rights and more. As far as the world bureaucracy is concerned, these people do not exist.
This short article zooms in on a specific group of stateless people, namely Chinese- North Korean children born in China. It is estimated that there are around 30.000 children born from North Korean women, who are living in China right now and are considered stateless.
It is important to note that North Korean defectors are illegal refugees in China, which means if Chinese authorities catch a North Korean, this individual will be deported back to North Korea. However, children born to a North Korean woman and a Chinese man (which is mostly the case), do not get deported and can get Chinese citizenship. So, what is the issue then? The core problem lies in obtaining a household registration document, called the hukou, which is a crucial part of Chinese citizenship. This document contains a lot of personal information about individuals, but is also proof of residency in a certain area. Most importantly, the hukou gives individuals access to social benefits, such as education, healthcare, marriage rights, employment and more. People in China who do not have a hukou are in a situation where one makes an account for a website, but to be able to use one’s account and the website, it is first required to verify your email address. The hukou is the verification email, as without it, one’s “Chinese citizenship account” is utterly worthless.
Children born to a Chinese and North Korean parent in China are eligible for the hukou. However, the identity of both parents needs to be revealed in order for a child to obtain a hukou. In such cases, this would lead to the deportation of the mother back to North Korea. Therefore, many mothers and their children have to live in the shadows of Chinese society, whilst others embark on a very dangerous journey to seek asylum in South Korea in hopes of a better future.
According to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, almost 80 per cent of all North Korean defectors that seek asylum in South Korea are women. This is a staggering statistic, and many people might wonder what causes this huge discrepancy between male and female North Korean defectors entering South Korea. Pastor Chun Ki-won, who runs a Christian missionary organization that helps North Korean defectors settle in South Korea, says that the human trafficking practices of North Korean women to China plays a key role in this discrepancy. In China, especially in the border region with North Korea, there is high demand for North Korean women to do household work, but more ominously, also for sex work. Pastor Chun Ki-won: “There are many people who want to buy the women, and there are many North Koreans who want to defect.” Jihyun Park was one of these women who defected to North Korea in 1998 and was forced into marriage with a Chinese man. She was one of the many victims of human traffickers who take advantage of these women due to their highly vulnerable positions. Brokers often approach women who just crossed the border and promise them food, shelter, employment and protection, which to the average North Korean sounds too good to be true. In the case of Jihyun Park and many other women, this was indeed too good to be true, as they spend the rest of their lives treated as commodities. Park said in an interview with The Guardian: “They (the brokers) are in fact trying to earn some profits for themselves by selling us to Chinese men where shortage of women persists in rural north-eastern China.” This human trafficking network of North Korean women has led to the emergence of a significant group of children born in China, who have no access to basic human rights.
One of the biggest issues you encounter when looking into this topic is the lack of recent articles or other sources that address the issue. Most articles or sources found were published between 2014 and 2016 and sometimes used old data. This does not take away the fact that these articles can provide very relevant and important information, but they are starting to become out of date. For example, the number of stateless children born from North Korean women in China in 2012 was estimated to be 30.000. However, according to various reports, one of them being a report by the US government published in 2020, this number is still estimated at 30.000. Of course, it is quite literally impossible to get a very accurate estimate of the number of people we are dealing with, as it would require making an estimation of the size of a group of people who are not formally registered anywhere. The problematic nature of this task is apparent, and it is reasonable to think that new findings on this topic cannot be presented as frequently as we’d hope. However, the severe lack of up-to-date sources and data shows that we are slowly losing sight of these children. As Sylvia Kim puts it: “these children are practically invisible to the rest of the world, especially in the case of North Korea and China.”
A solution to the problem is yet to present itself. The best we can do is try to create more awareness for these Chinese-North Korean children but also stateless individuals around the rest of the globe. So next time you have to renew your passport, take a moment to appreciate the situation you are in and don’t take this little booklet for granted.
Edited by Uilson Jones, Artwork by Teresa Valle