By: Se Jin Kim

Why doesn’t South Korea grant asylum to more refugees? The country lags much of the rest of the world in its rate of opening to refugees. It should increase the number of personnel dealing with refugee-related issues and improve expertise on refugee status determination and improve the treatment of refugees in order to meet global standards.

The country ratified the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees on Dec. 3, 1992. These came into effect on March 3, 1993. It amended its Immigration Act and implemented refugee policies beginning in 1994. It again amended the act on February 10, 2012, in response to criticism that the Immigration Act, which regulates foreigners’ entry and departure, conflicts with refugee protection and impedes the administration. The new act came into force on July 1, 2013.

But while the number of asylum seekers has continuously increased, doubling every year since 2013, and the world is awash in the dispossessed, the rate at which South Korea’s grant of asylum remains low. It didn’t grant its first asylum status until 2001, seven years after it first introduced refugee policies. From then until the end of 2017, only 792 people have been granted asylum and 1,474 granted residency privileges under “humanitarian status.”

In 2017, 121 individuals were granted asylum. Among them, 35 were relatives of refugees, 30 were granted due to resettlement, and one was cancelled, leaving only 55 who were granted asylum via the refugee status determination process. The rate of granting asylum has dropped consistently since 2010, reaching its lowest rate of 0.8 percent in 2016 and 1.51 percent in 2017.

According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Global Trends 2015, South Korea ranked 119th globally on the ratio of the number of asylum seekers hosted compared to per capita gross domestic product (GDP). It granted refugee status to far too few asylum seekers considering that it had the 11th largest economy and the 28th highest per capita GDP in the world in 2015.

South Korea’s support for refugees is also insufficient. Many readers commenting on refugee-related articles in the local media express negative sentiments such as “Why do we support them with our taxes?” However, there is practically zero direct support for refugees using tax funds. Their “benefit” as refugees is merely that they are granted the right not to be deported to their home country and that they have institutional support in the form of medical care and education if they pay insurance fees and educational costs.

How well this system works in reality is a different issue. Refugees can attend school, but they do not receive an official notice to enroll. Each school principal decides whether to accept refugee students or not, so they are not able to attend if they are refused admission.

Politics Aggravates Anti-Refugee Sentiment

South Korea legislated Asia’s first Refugee Act, yet most South Koreans were unaware of refugees at the time. The horrifying photo of Alan Kurdi in September 2015 – showing  a three-year-old Syrian boy lying dead on a beach after drowning in an attempt to reach Europe with his family – turned many people’s attention to the plight of Syrian refugees. Many were sympathetic, paying attention to how South Korea treated Syrian refugees. That raised awareness of refugee issues was a good thing, considering that there was very little of it previously.

But two months later, on November 13, 2015, as Paris suffered from terrorist attacks, local media agencies reported the attacks were committed by refugees. Most European media reported that the attacker was a second-generation immigrant with a Belgian or French passport, but the South Korean media reported that they were “refugees.”

Five days later, the head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Services (NIS) reported that “200 Syrian refugees came to South Korea via air travel, 135 are granted humanitarian status, and 65 are detained at the airport under high surveillance.”

The media was flooded with sensational reports of “[Breaking News] 200 Syrians Enter South Korea via Air.” Mis-reports cropped up one after another, with negative claims such as “200 unidentified Syrians suddenly flew into South Korea at once, 135 of whom entered South Korea, while 65 are still awaiting examination at the airport.”

It turns out that 135 is the total number of Syrian asylum seekers in South Korea from January to September 2015. Reports on the 65 people awaiting entry at the airport were conjectures without any basis in fact. The Ministry of Justice said that evening that these reports were incorrect, but this was after many people had already read and believed them. Strong negative public opinions were already formed, captured in such phrases as “No more refugees!,” “How will we prevent terrorist attacks?” or “We should not let the 65 waiting at the airport in.”

This raised strong suspicions that the head of the NIS had the intention to raise “anti-refugee sentiment,” “hatred against foreigners,” and even to “shape public opinion in order to legislate a particular act,” because he intentionally manipulated public outrage that was based on misleading data without disclosing any of the relevant facts.

Then President Park Geun-hye, who is now impeached and jailed, argued that “Everybody in the world now knows that we do not even have a basic law system [Counter-Terrorism Act] to prevent terrorism. IS also knows now. How can we not legislate this now?” As a result, the Act on Counter-Terrorism for the Protection of Citizens and Public Security, or the Counter-Terrorism Act, rapidly gained momentum and was passed in March 2016.

The Counter-Terrorism Act was tabled four times since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. It failed due to strong public opposition. Many worried that the NIS is using counter-terrorism tactics in its efforts to control the public and undermine democracy. But the Park administration conjured up anti-refugee sentiment by linking terrorism to refugees, using the attack on Paris as an excuse, and managed to pass the act.

The Plight of Yemeni Refugees on Jeju Island

Most Yemeni refugees who came to South Korea in early 2018 came through Malaysia, which granted visa-free entry and permits to stay for three months, but those who exceeded the three months were subject to deportation because the country is not a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and does not have official policies on refugees.

Those who spent their three visa-free months in Malaysia had no choice but to be deported. They came to Jeju Island since flights between Jeju and Kuala Lumpur began in December 2017, with it becoming widely known that they could enter Jeju visa-free and that South Korea is a signatory to the Convention. 549 Yemeni refugees came to Jeju Island in early 2018.

The Ministry of Justice confined the Yemeni refugees, preventing visa-free asylum seekers from leaving the island on April 30, 2018, as the number of Yemeni refugees was increasing. There are, in fact, quite a few Yemenis outside of Jeju in South Korea, many of whom are very well assimilated into South Korean society. Many Yemeni asylum seekers on Jeju Island were planning to receive help from the well-established Muslim community in places such as Itaewon after they were granted refugee status.

But they were unable to receive any help after they were confined on the island. Some of them ended up living on the streets when they ran out of the money they brought with them. Reports on the uneasiness of Jeju Island residents about the hundreds of Yemenis staying on the island began to emerge. “A petition to abolish or amend the Refugee Act, visa-free entrance, and refugee determination due to the illegal asylum seeker issue on Jeju Island” was posted on the Presidential Office’s petition webpage. It became the most-supported petition ever, with over 700,000 supporters.

Refugees have been neglected socially and in policy. Now that the issue has been forced onto the public agenda for the first time, the public has split into those for and against. Anti-refugee organizations have formed, such as the Jeju Islander’s Association to Countermeasure the Refugees or the People’s Association to Love Our Own Culture.

They defined all Yemeni men as possible sex offenders, highlighting the Yemeni custom of early marriage. They tapped into anti-Muslim sentiment that existed in South Korea before the Yemeni refugees arrived to argue against the refugees. Pro-refugee organizations such as the Korea Refugee Rights Network expressed deep concern about the South Korean government’s complacent attitude towards refugee issues and racist anti-refugee sentiment. They called on South Korea to fulfill its obligations as a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees.

Afterwards, the Ministry of Justice announced the results of the Yemeni refugee status screening review, which took place in three stages. At the end, two people received refugee status, 412 received humanitarian status, 56 were denied status, and 14 withdrew their applications. The asylum acceptance rate following the Yemeni influx was a mere 0.4 percent. This is lower than the 0.8 percent in 2016, previously South Korea’s lowest recorded refugee acceptance rate. The largest number obtained humanitarian status, which is merely temporary residency.

According to South Korea’s refugee law, those holding humanitarian status are given the right not to be forcefully removed and to work, but are not given social guarantees, educational rights, the right to travel, or the opportunity to have family members join them. This differs from the complementary status in most other countries where the government guarantees these individuals similar rights to refugees.

A large number of Yemenis that received humanitarian status listed their reason for applying for refugee status as persecution due to their refusal of conscription. This was similar to the situation of Syrian refugees, most of whom were not recognized as refugees but instead received humanitarian status in South Korea. The Ministry of Justice claims that Yeminis and Syrians applied for refugee status on the basis that they refused to be drafted to fight in their country’s civil war, which is not included in the five reasons for granting refugee status in the Refugee Convention (race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion).

For the same reason, in 2015, 28 Syrian refugees who applied for refugee status at Incheon International Airport were detained in the Incheon Airport Repatriation waiting room for eight months following a non-referral decision by the refugee review, because they were “clearly” not refugees. However, when talking about refugees, Syrians are the first to come to mind, and it is rather difficult to claim that Syrians are not refugees when they come from a representative refugee-producing country.

In the case of these Syrian refugees, the court found that the Incheon Airport Immigration Office’s judgement was incorrect and canceled the non-referral decision of the refugee review. However, in the case of the recent Yemeni refugees, the Jeju Immigration Office determined that under the UN Convention, civil war and refusal of conscription are not conditions for refugees, so it did not accept them as refugees, but it did grant them humanitarian status in consideration of the fact that their home country’s civil war is prolonged and the country is experiencing a humanitarian crisis.

Although civil war itself is not included in the five persecution situations in the refugee convention, during a civil war, the possibility of fitting into one of the five situations is higher. Furthermore, refusal of conscription in a civil war can be construed as political opposition against the Houthi rebellion, which is a political cause, meaning they should be accepted as refugees.

The Path that South Korea Should Follow

During the aforementioned refugee status determination process, the Ministry of Justice added Yemenis to the list of those not permitted to enter without a visa, and on June 28, 2018, it announced strict identification measures for the Jeju Yemeni refugee applicants, such as swift review of refugee applications, revision of the refugee law to prevent the abuse of the refugee system, establishment of a refugee appeals board, and strengthening education of accepted refugees.

This glosses over the reality of Yemenis who applied for refugee status lawfully, painting them as having abused the refugee system. Worst of all, citizens who helped refugees with hospitality were dubbed as “excessively paternalistic,” which aggravated the conflict among citizens.

In addition, in response to a citizen petition opposing refugees, the Minister of Justice said that “considering issues of national interest such as international status, a weakening of the right to speak in international society if we exit from the convention, and international isolation, abolishment of the refugee law or secession from the convention, which are unprecedented, is undesirable.” And “to prevent those that threaten national security via terrorism while pretending to be refugees entering into the country, when applying for refugee status, identification verification will be strengthened by mandatory submission of social media accounts.

The law will also be revised so that those applicants that abuse the refugee system will not be referred to the formal refugee status determination, the number of review officers will be increased for faster refugee status determination, and a refugee appeals board will be established.”

However, considering the low refugee acceptance rate in South Korea, the situation is already such that abusive asylum seekers cannot be accepted as refugees. Rather, it is difficult for even true refugees to be accepted. If South Korea’s refugee protection level is such, the response from the Blue House and the Ministry of Justice is very inappropriate and distorts the nature of South Korea’s current refugee system. Also, Yemeni refugees can never be abusive asylum seekers.

Despite this, the argument in favor of “blocking abusive asylum seekers,” which is irrelevant to Yemeni refugees, is brought up as an attempt to undermine the refugee law. Such an attempt runs counter to the purpose of the refugee law, which was created to protect refugees. Although there are a lot of incomplete elements, the current refugee law is an institutional basis that the South Korean government should employ as a member of the international community. This is a law founded in the pain of numerous refugees and the voices of civil organizations, as well as the National Assembly members that fought for and expended efforts alongside them for decades.

Calls to improve the refugee system have been made not because there are many refugees that abuse the system, but because the government has not accurately reviewed and protected refugees. The Ministry of Justice should remember that the refugee law was created to protect refugees and not to monitor and control them.

The position the administration should take is not to suggest a hasty institutional blueprint, but rather to improve refugee protection and the treatment of relatively vulnerable refugees such as females, children, and the disabled, while their status is determined; develop positions on refugee livelihood and medical support; measures for not only swift but fair review; and measures to transparently and fairly process formal objections.

Now is a time when a clear message on refugee protection is needed rather than temporary measures that deal with the media firestorm in order to comfort the public. Only a clear expression of a position by the government that matches international standards can calm the current misunderstanding and debate over refugees. Institutional improvements will come later, with deliberation among civil society groups, academia, and other experts.

We should not forget that in the past, South Korea received massive amounts of support from the UN Korea Reconstruction Agency (UNKRA), which played the role of the UNHCR right after the Korean War. UNKRA was established in 1950 with the objective of achieving South Korean political stabilization, economic support, and relief activity. UNKRA undertook similar activities as the UNHCR for refugees and domestically uprooted persons.

With economic recovery and stable politics achieved, it ceased activity in 1959 and formally ended operations in 1960. Before the Korean War, independence activists who resisted Japanese colonial rule fled abroad and received protection. In other words, South Korea itself had already received protection from the international community in terms of accepted refugees. Currently, South Korea is economically wealthy, having the world’s 12th largest GDP as of 2017.

South Korea has already served on the board of the United Nations Human Rights Council three times and is also the home country of a former Secretary-General of the United Nations. In particular, in 2013, South Korea was the chair of the UNHCR Executive Committee (ExCom). South Korea’s status in the international community is rising. In light of this, the country should put itself in other’s shoes, look at refugees and help them, giving back what it received from the international community in the past, remembering that South Koreans were once refugees, and consider its economic position.

Se Jin Kim graduated from Seoul National University, majoring in economics, and completed her law degree at Ajou University Law School. She is employed at Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL) as a full-time lawyer.  This was made available by the East Asia Foundation, a Seoul-based thinktank.