The largest group of North Koreans who ever smuggled into Thailand will be charged with illegal entry and face a court hearing to determine whether they will be deported, police said on Wednesday.
Police said that on Tuesday they arrested 175 North Koreans who fled from their communist homeland and were hiding in a house in a suburb of the Thai capital, Bangkok.
Officers raided the house after receiving a tip-off from neighbours and took the 37 men, 128 women and 10 children into custody, police Col Songphol Wattanachai said.
The chief of immigration police, Lt Gen Suwat Tumrongsiskul, said the asylum seekers would be charged with illegal entry and their case taken before a court which would rule on whether they will be deported. If no country is willing to accept them, they will remain incarcerated in Thailand, according to Thai law. "Police are also investigating the human smuggling gang who arranged the smuggling of these North Koreans into the country," Suwat said.
However, 16 members of the group had been granted refugee status by the Bangkok office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and are scheduled to leave Thailand for South Korea in a few days, Songphol said. It was not immediately clear whether they would also be charged with illegal entry.
Songphol said the North Koreans had entered Thailand in separate groups through the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai, and had been staying in the two-story house for the past two months. "They are seeking asylum in a third country, preferably South Korea," Songphol said, adding they were now being detained at the Thai police immigration centre.
Thousands of North Koreans, facing hunger and repression in their homeland, have made their way abroad in recent years, many taking a long and risky land journey through China to arrive in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries. They usually seek asylum at the embassies of third countries, though many are believed to be in hiding.
Previous arrests of North Koreans in Thailand have usually been of small groups still trying to make their way to Bangkok from the north, or trying to enter embassies or contact the UN refugee office.
The Thai government has tried to discourage North Koreans from using Thailand to seek asylum, fearing it could cause diplomatic tensions with North Korea.