Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996
Moscow-based Protection Officer Isabelle Mihoubi describes a very long but rewarding weekend in Vladivostok, in Russia's Far East.
By Isabelle Mihoubi
UNHCR Protection Officer – Moscow, Russian Federation
It was not going to be an ordinary weekend – one of those charming little autumn weekends in Moscow, when the air is still warm and it's good to walk among the cafés.
The Foreign Ministry was requesting UNHCR's help in Vladivostok, where three North Koreans had asked for a sylum. One was in prison. He had attempted suicide by slitting his wrists. Another was in hospital with a broken leg – he was wounded trying to flee the policemen who wanted to question him. The third was hiding in an apartment.
For years, North Korea had sent immigrant workers to the USSR, where they lived in closed camps. When Russia became more open, the North Korean workers could leave their camps. Many used the opportunity to try to leave for good.
Were these three asylum-seekers refugees? And if so, could they be resettled in a third country? The Foreign Ministry wanted our advice.
On Friday, I headed to Vladivostok, Long a military port, Vladivostok is strategically situated at the eastern extremity of Russia. There is a seven-hour time difference with Moscow. The trip took 15 hours by air in a poorly maintained plane that creaked and jumped all through the journey. The food was appalling. A normal flight.
My colleague and myself finally arrive at the end of the world. Vladivostok is an awful place, sad and poor, suffering from all the disadvantages of industrialization. The only note of colour in this gray place: the cars are all white (and all Japanese).
We head for the prison, a well-guarded building with 36 doors to go through – but the security system is so archaic that it seems quite human. Still, the conditions are awful.
The director receives us, offers us a beer and asks me where I come from. When I say I'm French, he calls all his colleagues to tell them there's a French woman in his office. Until recent years, Vladivostok was one of the Soviet Union's closed cities. Even after it opened to foreigners, very few made the trip.
The director calls one of the asylum-seekers, whom he says is a 'criminal' because he has been judged an illegal resident. The man arrives in handcuffs, terrified and shaking like a leaf at the idea of being sent back to his home country. There's no time to establish trust, I must interview him now. It's obvious that he is a refugee, and South Korea is ready to receive him.
Eventually, we get all three North Koreans assembled at the South Korean mission. Everyone is nervous. They are taken to the airport. Till the last step on the plane's staircase, they couldn't believe it. But when they realized it was true, they were so moved, so completely overwhelmed, that they were speechless, incapable of even expressing their gratitude. They could only look at us with immense smiles.
We closed the case in 48 hours. We were exhausted, but delighted with our work. We celebrated with the Russians.
Time to go back to Moscow. The first leg, an eight-hour flight, brings us to Novossibirsk. We are told to wait in transit. The plane stops in the middle of the airstrip. We get out. It's winter! We can't even see the terminal. We are guided by the smell of grilled meat. The terminal has been invaded by a noisy, feverish crowd all desperate to get into our already full plane.
I finally snap. With my thin shoes and a thinner raincoat, I wasn't equipped for a snow storm. In Vladivostok the temperature had been a balmy 10 degrees Celsius. I was freezing now, and exhausted. I told myself I would never make it through this crowd back to the plane. My colleague caught my despairing glance and started yelling in French. The unexpected result: everyone around us fell back in surprise. My colleague pushed me back into the overcrowded, filthy, smelly plane that I now so desperately wanted.
We arrived back in Moscow on Sunday, zombies after two 15-hour flights in less than 72 hours, across several time zones. Next day I was in the office, completely wasted. Oddly, nobody seemed surprised.
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)