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Sweden Accused of Forcing Teenager Back to North Korea Because of Asylum Errors

Authorities refused to accept the 17-year-old was from the hermit kingdom, but lawyers and experts say they bungled his case — and the specialist who analyzed his dialect says she was misrepresented.
November 13, 2014, 6:54pm
Image via Reuters

The Swedish government has been accused of ordering the deportation of a teenager who allegedly escaped North Korea because of errors handling his asylum claim.

The 17-year-old boy, who has not been named, arrived alone in Sweden last year after what his lawyers say was a long and perilous solo journey through China and Russia with the help of a people smuggler.

But Swedish immigration authorities refused to accept that the teenager was from North Korea and he now faces being deported to China — where they believe he is from — as soon as he reaches adulthood next March.

From there, if China judges that he is in fact from North Korea, he will be returned to the hermit kingdom due to the Chinese policy of forced repatriation for North Korean escapees.

His lawyers, backed by experts, say the Swedish Migration Board made a series of mistakes when investigating his claim last year. Meanwhile the company that analyzed his dialect — which was earlier this year judged by Britain's Supreme Court to have provided improper assessments in hundreds of asylum cases — has been accused by its own specialist contractor of misrepresenting her conclusions.

Arido Degavro, the boy's lawyer, told VICE News that the authorities' errors were all characterized by the fact that they lacked the expertise to properly assess a claim from such a "closed country." Degavro said that — among other inaccuracies — the geographical locations the teenager named were spelled incorrectly by immigration officials, and his dialect was wrongly analysed.

The teenager can't be deported under Swedish law as long as he's a minor. Once he turns 18 he will be given the option to voluntarily return to China. If he refuses his case will be handed over to the police, who can then force a deportation.

A United Nations report released earlier this year showed that over the past two decades China has forcibly returned thousands of North Koreans, almost all of whom have then been subjected to "imprisonment, execution, torture, arbitrary detention, deliberate starvation, illegal cavity searches, forced abortions and other sexual violence."

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Degavro said that the boy's mother died when he was seven. When he was eight his father was arrested and taken away. "After that he was a homeless boy who just traveled around a lot of places in North Korea. He was like a beggar boy and just traveled around and tried to survive.

"He also went to China because in that province he comes from, that region, it is very common that the North Koreans cross the border to China because they are starving, but then they return to North Korea because they get worried that if they are caught by the Chinese authorities the risk of persecution and torture."

Degavro said he believed that the boy crossed the border to China, and with the help of a smuggler then travelled to Russia, and on to Sweden.

He added that the teenager is now attending school in Sweden. "He has learned Swedish very fast, so he has no problem to talk Swedish with us. He likes Sweden. He wants to be here, he doesn't want to leave the country."

Erik Brunnegard, a regional manager at a Swedish IT consultant firm, was introduced to the 17-year-old earlier this year after the asylum shelter appealed for a Korean speaker to help with the case.

When he first met the teenager, Brunnegard told VICE News, he was "extremely disturbed, very distressed, not confident in himself. He was showing very little self-esteem. Talked in a very low voice, very quickly, very fast, very little eye contact."

Brunnegard said that as he showed a steady interest, the boy opened up. "I don't think that he actually met so many people in his life that actually cared for him so much."

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Part of the assessment that the 17-year-old went through was an evaluation of his dialect. This was carried out by a contracted organization called Sprakab.

On Sprakab's website, the company describes its language analysis service as "a very clear guide to determine an individual's language background." It also states that it is commissioned for work by the Swedish Migration Board, as well as the Swedish Police Service and police authorities from other countries.

The organization's report concluded that the teenager's dialect did not support his story of having grown up in North Korea's northern regions. However, the expert hired to carry out the assessment told Swedish radio that this was a misappropriation of her conclusions.

"I never said that he didn't come from North Korea," she said. "What they are saying is wrong. It's ridiculous."

Sprakab has previously been accused of going "beyond the proper role of a witness," and negatively affecting hundreds of asylum cases that were processed in the UK.

Kristina Sandklef, a China analyst who has been advising the teenager's lawyers, said that a dialect analysis wouldn't be accurate even if properly done as the boy has grown up without a fixed abode. She also told VICE News that if his father was arrested for political crimes he would have been unable to stay anywhere because of the North Korean policy of punishing the family members of anyone who they perceive as having erred.

She said that the team representing the teenager have successfully identified 18 geographical places he has mentioned.

Degravo said that the teenager panicked when the verdict was delivered. Since then he has been hospitalised twice. "That has affected him in many ways."

The Swedish migration statistics show that there were nine applications for asylum from North Koreans this year, four of which were by unaccompanied minors. Only one decision was reached, and that was successful.

Sprakab did not respond to request for comment.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Image via __Flickr/John Pavelka