This essay series explores the human costs and policy challenges associated with the displacement crises in the Middle East and Asia. The essays explore the myths or misconceptions that have pervaded discussions about these crises, as well as the constraints or capacity deficiencies that have hampered the responses to them. See more ... 


 

According to the most recent Global Trends report issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 68.5 million people around the world have been displaced from their homes, of which 16.2 million were newly displaced in 2017.[1] The report noted that the Syrian civil war has played a major role in the number of refugees worldwide alongside growing numbers of forced migrants in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Myanmar. Among them, 25.4 million refugees left their own country due to war and persecution, a 2.9 million increase from the previous year. As the UN noted, “Across all countries, one in every 110 persons is someone displaced.”[2] With the ever-increasing number of refugees around the world each year, the global refugee crisis has finally reached South Korea.

South Korea’s experience with the current global refugee crisis began in 2018 with the arrival of around 500 Yemeni citizens on Jeju Island using the visa-free entry system. Before even developing a clear understanding of the asylum applicants, much of the Korean public hastily leaped to fearful conclusions about the new arrivals inspired by Europe’s experience with Islamic terrorism and populist anti-refugee rhetoric found in other countries. The impact of this discourse has sparked significant public attention and concern regarding Muslim refugees in Korea.

South Korea today is a multicultural society. Yet there remains steadfast opposition by some members of Korean society to accepting refugee applicants from Yemen. There have been strong public calls for these refugees to return to Yemen, despite the ongoing civil war and health crisis there. Notwithstanding various efforts by the Korean government to assuage the concerns of some of its citizens while fulfilling the country’s international commitments, the domestic debate in Korea over Yemeni refugees persists.

This article examines the Korean debate over accepting Yemeni refugees by detailing how the Korean public and government have responded. It traces the arrival of Yemeni refugees in 2018, how different Korean groups reacted, and concludes with a discussion of what efforts are needed to resolve the dispute.

The Sudden Arrival of Yemenis on the Visa-free System

Yemen remains in the midst of a devastating four-year civil war that has killed an estimated 60,000 people, left two-thirds of its people starving, and has displaced over three million.[3] In early 2018, about 550 Yemeni asylum seekers landed on the resort island of Jeju. The circumstances of their sudden arrival dated from 16 years earlier, when the Jeju administration instituted a 30-day visa-free system as a way to attract foreign tourists.[4] The Yemeni arrivals to Jeju entered the country under this system via cheap Air Asia flights originating from Malaysia, where they had been unable to obtain asylum. 

The unexpected appearance of Yemeni asylum seekers in Jeju sparked fear among some residents that these new arrivals might present public safety risks and engage in criminal behavior, and triggered calls for the abolition of the visa-free system. The Korean government put Yemen on a list of terrorist watch-list countries following deteriorating public opinion over Yemenis using the visa-free system.[5] On June 1, 2018, the government removed Yemen from its list of visa-free entry countries to Jeju Island.[6] Clearly, this type of response is contrary to the spirit of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention). As Chae Hyun-young, UNHCR Korea’s associate legal officer noted regarding the official response to the Yemeni emergency, there is an inconsistency between South Korea's accession to the Refugee Convention, which signaled a willingness to accept refugees, and its capacity to accommodate refugees.[7]

Korea joined the Refugee Convention in December 1992 and in 2013 became the first country in Asia to adopt a refugee law. Yet the current approval rate for refugee status by Korea is 4%, with the government applying rigorous vetting and selection criteria. The government offers an ‘humanitarian stay permit’ for some of those not recognized as refugees. An individual is eligible for such a permit only if s/he is “a person who has rational grounds for recognizing that his/her life, personal liberty, is very likely to be infringed by torture, other inhumane treatment or punishment or other events.”[8] These visas are quite different from those granted refugee status. For example, a handful of Syrians who had fled the civil war requested refugee status. However, Korean authorities did not approve any of their requests and instead granted some of them humanitarian status.

The Korean and Jeju governments have maintained the visa-free entry system for economic reasons despite ongoing public pressure to abolish it. As mentioned earlier, the government implemented a narrower policy, one that excluded Yemenis from the visa-free list. Given that South Korea is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, actions such as this demand careful scrutiny, as do the social and political dynamics from which they have emerged.

Issues Surrounding Yemeni Refugee Applicants in Korea

1. “Real Refugees” versus “Fake Refugees”

As the subject of Yemeni refugees became a wider social issue, some Koreans strongly argued that a clear distinction should be drawn between who is and is not a “real” refugee. These arguments heated up in the Korean media, with commentators using the terms “fake refugees” (gajja nanmin) and “real refugees” (jinjja nanmin). The unprecedented high number of arrivals and the suddenness of their appearance on Korean soil contributed to the media hype. The reporting of unconfirmed facts about refugee application “brokers” and the swirl of rumors that many of the asylum seekers were actually economic migrants .

The more serious problem was a xenophobic response to the Yemeni refugees. In justifying their opposition to accepting Yemeni asylum seekers, some Koreans cited a number of recent high-profile crimes committed by Muslim refugees in Europe. Islamophobia had already taken root in Korean society, spawning fear of Muslims. Some Koreans viewed the applicants, whether Yemeni, Syrian, Egyptian or from elsewhere, primarily as Muslims rather than as refugees. In this understanding, Muslim refugees from Islamic countries and fear of Islamic terrorists were conflated. This attitude has been freely reported by the media and has been spreading through social media. For this reason, claims to distinguish between real and fake refugees have gained traction.

Those seeking to distinguish between real and fake refugees are now beginning to doubt whether Korea’s refugee laws can establish the distinction. In response, the government demanded that the current refugee law be revised or abolished. This strong sentiment led the government to revise the Refugee Act to identify those considered “fake refugees.” The amendments included strengthening identity verification and background checks, tougher procedures for visa over-stayers, termination of applications for any applicant returning to their home country, and penalties for any migration broker.[9]

The Korean Refugee Act was thus revised to strengthen the screening process. Some are concerned that the revised refugee law will create long delays in the refugee application process, which in turn would backfire by producing refugee brokers and illegal immigrants. In addition, refugee applicants are also placed in a situation where they cannot receive social security or play a productive role as members of society until the screening process is completed. It is also worrisome that refugee applicants should suffer from the difficulties of living an unstable life for a long time.

In response, the government presented supplementary measures, including increasing the number of officials assigned to refugee processing as well as professional interpreters to provide language assistance for refugees. This will help strengthen transparency between refugee applicants and screening agencies. Also, the period of examination for refugees, which currently takes two to three years, has been reduced to less than a year. To this end, the government decided to create a new refugee agency. The government's move is a clear indication of its intention to protect the “true” refugees and identify the “false” ones accurately and quickly.

However, the most important issue has been the misconception in trying to separate applicants between “real” and “fake” refugees. The Refugee Act should be designed to provide adequate protection and assistance to all refugees. Having a framework that divides refugees from those considered “fakes” is hardly a priority when providing proper help and protection. However, some observers tend to view refugees as a burden to the state or as passive objects of policy. Furthermore, it can be said that there is a tendency to view them as potential criminals. But we must remember that one in 110 people have been displaced as refugees or are seeking asylum. Given this reality, it is time to transform the way we conceive of support for refugees, so as to enable long-term investments in national prosperity, security and international peace. A new spirit of solidarity and shared responsibility is needed.[10]

2. Concerns over Social Integration of Yemeni Refugees

Another issue that has been at the center of attention in the Korean debate over Yemeni refugees is the concern that they are fundamentally incompatible with Korean society due to their religious and cultural background, even if they are recognized as legitimate refugees and granted asylum. Migrants, including refugees, move not only with their bodies, but with their culture. Therefore, migration and settlement can be confusing to both local residents and new migrants who face the problem of having to adapt to each other.

In particular, although Korean society is rapidly becoming a multicultural society, many remain skeptical of multiculturalism, whereby individuals from different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds coexist. A core tenet of Korean education and social values has emphasized pride in being a single nation and people united by a common bloodline for millennia. As a result, it is also true that there has been a rejection of cultural disparities, with different types of cultural conflicts and discrimination. In other words, discrimination and exclusion can be expressed by some Koreans through distinguishing between “we” and “others” based on a sense of national unity.

Beginning in the 2000s Korean society began to turn into a multicultural society as a large number of foreign workers entered the labor market. Therefore, the history of multiculturalism in Korean society is relatively short. However, as foreign workers and international marriages have increased, the Korean government has tried to ease the transition with various policies. Multicultural families are no longer a strange phenomenon in Korean society. Yet some are quite concerned about possible conflict, crimes and accidents that may arise when more asylum seekers enter the country, claiming that refugees are unable to adapt to Korean society due to disparate religious and cultural differences.

These concerns are expressed in public opinion. With the arrival of multiculturalism, it can be seen as a fear of refugees or Islamophobia. Therefore, this phenomenon is a fearful view of refugee applicants, including Yemenis, who are recognized as refugees and settled in the country that views them as potential criminals and as sources of social crime. In other words, the rationale behind distinguishing between “us” and “them” strongly rejects these refugee applicants as members of Korean society.

But what is really important is that most of these fears or concerns regarding Yemeni refugee applicants are based on unconfirmed facts. It is necessary to re-examine, based on objective data, how many crimes have been committed by refugees in Korean society, including Muslim refugees, and whether these crimes have become a social problem. Social conflicts arise when minorities are not easily embraced or integrated by the dominant social community in a multicultural society. This also presents them as marginal social groups more likely to come into conflict with the wider community.

With Korean society already transitioning from a monocultural into a multicultural society, it is important to avoid social conflict by accepting refugees as part of the community, free from discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization. A positive development in this regard has been the Korean government’s recent reforms and new policies in light of the arrival of Yemeni refugees aimed at supporting better social integration.

According to the Ministry of Justice, if an individual is recognized as a refugee, the ministry will make it mandatory for applicants to receive social integration education on Korean legal systems and culture as well as provide support and management for settlement by introducing a mentoring system. Furthermore, the government has pledged to provide related policies so that refugees will not be burdened in terms of financial and social security nor neglected. Korea is also in a position to fulfill its responsibility for protecting refugees as a member of the international community. In particular, considering various issues affecting the national interest, such as the nation's international status, we should accept them as members of our society to live harmoniously under our laws and order, rather than making unrealistic claims such as withdrawing from international refugee agreements or abolishing the refugee law.

Conclusion

The entry of Yemeni asylum seekers in Korea in 2018 sparked intense debate public debates. Since the issue first emerged, 714,875 people have signed online petitions calling for the abolition of the Refugee Act and the Non-Patriate Entry; the abolition or reform of the Permission to Apply for Refugees under the Jeju Illegal Refugee Application; and even the country’s withdrawal from the 1951 Refugee Convention.[11] However, abolishing the refugee law or exiting the Convention would represent a radical shift in the nature of Korea’s international engagement that would undermine the country's standing, weaken its voice, and isolate it diplomatically. Other countries have accommodated many more refugees and have provided a much larger share of the aid disbursed to protect and support those forced to flee their homes than has South Korea. Thus, for Korea to hold itself to a higher standard of generosity in the fulfillment of its international commitments would hardly constitute an undue burden.

On September 14, 2018, the South Korean government granted permission for 23 Yemeni refugees to remain in humanitarian custody and the next month issued humanitarian permits to 339 Yemeni refugees. Thirty-four of the Yemeni refugees were denied refugee status. Of the 85 persons whose cases were still pending, 50 were granted humanitarian status, 22 asylum claims were rejected, and 11 asylum seekers left the country after examination. In total, only two people were recognized as refugees while 412 were granted humanitarian status.[12] As of 2019, the Korean government, together with various social and religious institutions, has been active in assisting these refugees to adjust and integrate into Korean society. However, there does not appear to be a lasting solution in sight to South Korea’s “Yemeni Refugee Problem.” 

 

[1] “Forced displacement above 68m in 2017, new global deal on refugees critical,” UNHCR, June 19, 2018, https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2018/6/5b27c2434/forced-displacement-a….
 

[2] Ibid.
 

[3] The Yemeni conflict began in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in the Middle East in 2011, when former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down as president in February 2012, attacked the South in cooperation with the northern forces represented by Houthis. Yemen Data Project and Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), “Press Release: Yemen War Death Toll Now Exceeds 60,000 According to Latest ACLED Data,” December 11, 2018, https://www.acleddata.com/2018/12/11/press-release-yemen-war-death-toll…. See also Kim Chong-woo, “Three years of Yemen's war ... The poorest country in the Middle East, trampled by mercenaries and neighboring countries,” Hankook Ilbo, June 29, 2018 (in Korean), http://www.hankookilbo.com/News/Read/201806281627314521.
 

[4] The 11 excluded countries were: Afghanistan, Cuba, Ghana, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Macedonia, Palestine, Sudan, and Syria.
 

[5] The South Korean Ministry of Justice revised the list of countries the wake of the arrival of Yemeni refugees and subsequent reports that Al Qaeda fighters of Uzbek origin had also attempted to enter Jeju via the visa-free entry system. Kim, Min-sang, “Yemeni Refugee Controversy Leads to Blocked Entry for Uzbek Al Qaeda Fighters,” Joongang Ilbo, February 16, 2019, https://news.joins.com/article/23375705.
 

[6] See South Korea Tourism Organization, “Visa Information,” http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/TRV/TV_ENG_2_1.jsp.
 

[7] Chun Jeong-yoon, “South Korea has the capacity to accept refugees,” Hankyoreh21, June 25, 2018 (in Korean), http://h21.hani.co.kr/arti/cover/cover_general/45544.html (accessed on 8th Aug. 2018).
 

[8] See, Article 2, sub-paragraph 3, Republic of Korea Ministry of Justice, "Refugee Act", Act No. 14408, Dec. 20, 2016, Statutes of the Republic of Korea. https://elaw.klri.re.kr/kor_service/lawView.do?hseq=43622&lang=ENG%20.
 

[9] Blue House Online Petition Board, “Petition for the Termination of the Refugee Act, Visa-free Entry, and Refugee Application due to the Problem of Illegal Refugee Applications on Jeju Island,” Cheongwadae (Blue House), July 13, 2018, https://www1.president.go.kr/petitions/269548.
 

[10] Chung-hee Han, “Worldwide Refugee Situation and Policy,” Muslim-Christian Encounter 9, 1 (March 2016): 62.
 

[11] Blue House Online Petition Board, “Petition for the Termination of the Refugee Act, Visa-free Entry, and Refugee Application due to the Problem of Illegal Refugee Applications on Jeju Island,” Cheongwadae (Blue House), July 13, 2018, https://www1.president.go.kr/petitions/269548.
 

[12] Byung Soo Lee, “Global Village and Refugees: Missionary Role of Korean Church,” Muslim-Christian Encounter 12, 1 (March 2019): 62.