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China deports refugees ahead of Olympics -- UN

GENEVA, April 8 (Reuters) - The United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday China had deported 15 refugees this year in a "security sweep" ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games.

It voiced concern at the most recent case, a 17-year-old boy from Pakistan, who it said had been sent back after being taken from his home in Beijing on April 3 despite being recognised as a refugee under international law.

"There have been 15 (deportations) in total this year from China. They have been Iraqis, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis," Jennifer Pagonis, spokeswoman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a news briefing in Geneva.

"It does seem to be that this is happening because of the security sweep ahead of the Olympics. That is fairly clear and it is deeply concerning that this is happening," she said.

China has signed the U.N. Convention on the status of refugees, obliging it to protect refugees and asylum-seekers in the country, who currently number 180, according to the UNHCR.

It has asked Chinese authorities about the reasons for the Pakistani boy's deportation, amid concerns it might be a treaty violation known as "refoulement" or forced return, Pagonis said.

"On the surface, it certainly does seem like it is a refoulement, but we'd like to have verification and clarification," she said. "We always have concerns when refugees are sent back to their country of origin. This is basically something that should not happen."

The refugee Convention aims to protect people fleeing persecution because of race, religion, nationality or opinion whose lives may be endangered if they are sent home. It also requires refugees to abide by the laws of their adopted country.

China does not have any asylum centres or domestic procedures for filing refugee applications. People seeking refugee status must file applications with the UNHCR which examines cases to determine if they meet international criteria.

News of the deportations had created "considerable anxiety among the refugees in Beijing who have told us they are feeling very intimidated by these activities", Pagonis said.

The UNHCR is also stepping up efforts to resettle refugees currently in China to third countries, as there is little chance for them to integrate locally, she said.

"There are 100 people in the pipeline whose cases have been submitted to third countries or which are pending," she said.

It is both difficult and expensive for refugee children to attend Chinese schools, although the UNHCR had recently reached an arrangement for 23 to attend a school for migrants, she said.

The UNHCR had no information about any deportations of North Korean refugees from China, she said, noting that it was difficult information to obtain and verify.

"There is a fundamental difference between China and the UNHCR on how we view North Koreans. China views them all as illegal immigrants whereas we believe that many of them are people of concern to UNHCR who may well face very harsh punishment if they are sent back to North Korea," she said. (Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Ibon Villelabeitia)

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