Many Sundays over the past two years, Rev. Hae Bin Jung has found himself facilitating tearful goodbyes for members of his congregation. Some weeks, they’re present for the sendoff. Jung will say a few words about their time at Alpha Korean United in Toronto, and the congregation will sing a hymn. Other times, church staff only hear about the departure through the grapevine; a family had to leave in a hurry. No time for farewells.
These departing members are North Korean asylum seekers, many of whom landed in Canada via South Korea before 2013 and have since been denied refugee status. Canada was once a haven for those who had managed to escape the secretive communist regime. But the federal government has since tightened the conditions under which a North Korean can claim refugee status. Asylum seekers who passed through South Korea before coming to Canada are now considered South Korean nationals, and therefore safe. As a result, a large number of their refugee claims have been denied. Last year, 618 refugee claims were finalized but only one was approved — a sharp decline from 2012, when the government approved 222 out of 282 claims.
“It’s like a death in the family,” says Cheung-Woong Cho, a congregation member who teaches an English class at Alpha Korean. Three years ago, 15 to 20 students would attend the class. Today, only three students remain. The volunteer teachers try to keep in touch with those who’ve returned to South Korea. “They tell us it’s tough, economically: it’s hard to find a job, and [South Korean] government support of North Korean refugees is minimal.”
“I understand why the Canadian government is tough on refugees, because there are so many refugees in western countries like Canada. We can’t help them all,” says Raymond Cho, a Toronto city councillor and congregation member who’s active in many of Alpha Korean’s advocacy efforts. “But I have mixed feelings, especially with North Korean refugees.” Few can flee directly to Canada, he points out, given that escape routes from North Korea through other neighbouring nations, such as China, are dangerous and pose high risks for recapture.
For Jung’s congregation, which had welcomed over 50 new refugee members to the church before 2013, the government clampdown has meant a stark change in their approach to supporting Toronto’s North Korean exile community. At one time, Alpha Korean was busy settling newcomers and raising awareness about their living conditions. Now, much of their work is about helping people leave.
“Whenever Canada Border Services called a family and they didn’t have a car or couldn’t speak English, we’d give them rides. We’d come together and provide cars and translate,” says Jung of the nearly 20 families — about 45 people — he has since seen leave the church.
The congregation hasn’t given up on its advocacy for North Koreans, however. This year, Alpha Korean partnered with the Association of Korean Churches in Ontario to send a delegation, including Raymond Cho, to Ottawa on two separate occasions: once to meet with Senator Yonah Martin about the federal government’s changing approach to North Korean refugee claims, and more recently to speak with Ontario member of Parliament Barry Devolin regarding Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim, a Mississauga, Ont., pastor whom North Korean officials detained under charges of espionage and treason during an aid visit to the country last January.
“I think all Canadians, especially the leaders of the religious communities, whether Presbyterian or United or Methodist, should be fighting to get him back,” says Cho. Later this fall, he will be launching a petition urging the Canadian government to secure Lim’s return, along with a campaign to invite Canadian religious leaders to advocate for Lim.
Chantal Braganza is a journalist in Toronto.