Nearly 50,000 signatures were collected for a petition asking China to grant refugee status to North Koreans fleeing famine and persecution in their country, reported a U.K.-based ministry.
Release International, a ministry supporting persecuted Christians, gathered the signatures and has presented the petition to the Chinese Embassy in London, the group said on Thursday.
"North Korea is one of the harshest places in the world to be a Christian," says Andy Dipper, CEO of Release International, in a statement.
"Our message to China is to treat these men, women and children with compassion - to treat them as refugees, not as fugitives. And to stop sending them back to a land of famine and persecution."
It is said that at least 500,000 North Koreans have crossed the border over to China in the past 10 years. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea identifies North Koreans who flee to China as "refugees" deserving of protection, but China has claimed they are "economic migrants" and not refugees.
China has used the status as an excuse to return North Korean refugees back to their country where they face imprisonment, torture, and sometimes execution for leaving the country - a state crime.
For the seventh straight year, Open Doors named North Korea as the worst persecutor of Christians in the world in its 2009 World Watch List.
Human rights groups have criticized China for its inhumane policy toward North Korean refugees, emphasizing that South Korea and the United States have stated that they are willing to allow North Koreans to resettle in their countries if China only allows safe passage. Moreover, in South Korea, North Koreans are automatically considered citizens.
According to Release International, China repatriates around 4,000 North Koreans a year.
The Release petition strongly urges the government of China:
• to act compassionately towards the men, women and children escaping the regime by granting them refugee status,
• to give them safe passage to third countries, and
• to stop immediately the forcible repatriation of North Koreans