Recently, South Korea has faced a global issue known as the refugee crisis. It all started in June when 500 Yemeni nationals arrived on Jeju Island, who shortly after their arrival applied for refugee status. This was possible through the visa waiver policy, made under the Roh Moo-hyun administration. According to this policy, tourists are allowed to stay in the island for 30 days without a visa, and if they apply for refugee status, they can remain while the application is being processed.
After the news went public, anti-refugee sentiments began to flare on Cheong Wa Dae’s online petition system. It is one of the most famous petitions on the website, which gained around 710,000 signatures in the course of a few days. It demands the government to revise the law on refugees and the visa waiver policy, also claiming that Korea has no obligation to help these refugees, since accepting them would, in their opinion, only fuel social problems.
While there are also other petitions that ask the government to take humanitarian actions for the refugees, the amount is small compared to petitions like the one mentioned above. Amidst the ongoing controversy, the government released an official statement on August 1, which promised to improve the refugee reviewal process, and to revise the law on refugees and the visa waiver policy, while simultaneously respecting the society’s needs. However, with viewpoints on this issue dividing Korean society, is improving the refugee reviewal process, and revising related laws all that the South Korean government can do?
Why South Korea, and Why Jeju Island, Explained:
After residing in Malaysia, Yemeni refugees ended up choosing Jeju Island since other countries near Korea, such as Japan, do not have a visa waiver policy. As a large number of Yemeni refugees suddenly entered Korea all at once, most experts believe that that was the root cause of fear.
“South Korea has been a member state of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since 1992 and has a background of having accepted refugees since 1994. Currently, it has accepted 40,000 asylum seekers, and officially granted refugee status to 2,400 people. Although 500 might not seem like a large number according to the aforementioned figures, it is also the first time the Korean society has witnessed so many refugees entering the country all at once, let alone on Jeju Island. I believe that many would have felt shocked and scared,” said Shin He-inn, a Senior PI Associate of UNHCR Korea. Professor Lee Hee-soo, from Hanyang University’s Department of Cultural Anthropology, also agreed. “South Korea is fueled by homogenous nationalism. Everyone is in-sync with one another in terms of culture and religion. While it is efficient in terms of a country’s functionality, it is inefficient when they are exposed to different cultures. So, people have started to feel defensive against these refugees.” He added that because so many have entered all at once, it has spread fear, nationalistic ideals, and islamophobia.
False news reports and posts that have been made on social media also caused the Koreans’ disapproval towards refugee intake. So far, many Koreans have been clouded by false information, unable to make fair judgments on their own.
Unraveling Accusations: Do Refugees Receive Financial Aid with the Taxes I Pay?
When refugees enter South Korea, they can register to receive financial support from the government, which is enforced under the 1951 Refugee Convention that South Korea is a party of. “All refugees are able to work after six months of receiving refugee status. Since these refugees usually don’t have any income for six months, the government provides financial support so that they can afford their basic needs,” explained Shin. “However, most refugees don’t know about this system, so many don’t register for it. And even if some do, not everyone gets this financial support. So, in reality, only four percent of the current refugees in Korea that registered for financial aid have actually received it.”
Many Koreans were upset because the government is using the taxes that they pay to provide such aid. They claim that their lives are already difficult to sustain financially, but the fact that the government is offering aid to these foreigners does not make sense to them. One of the rumors spread was that each refugee receives 1,380,000 won in financial support every month. The Ministry of Justice denied this by saying that one refugee actually receives 432,900 won per month, and if they use the facilities provided, 216,450 won. However, as previously mentioned, just because one signs up for financial support, it does not mean that they will always receive it. Amongst the 500 Yemeni refugees, around 360 have registered for financial aid, but none have received it so far.
Unraveling Accusations: Will Crimes Increase Because of The Increasing Number of Refugees?
The reason why many fear accommodating refugees onto Korean ground is because they fear crime rates will increase significantly. And according to a survey conducted by The Hanyang Journal, there were several students who feared that crime rates would increase just like it is claimed to have happened in Europe after they accepted refugees from the Middle East. However, after further research and interviews, we established that these types of claims were generally unsubstantiated.
When Germany surveyed crime rates that have occurred across the country from 2015 to 2017, they found that 2017’s crime rates were much lower than 2012’s, and were the lowest over the span of the last 30 years. “Actually, there are neither credible news sources nor research which claims that crime rates have increased in Europe or North America after taking in refugees. Although it is what many politicians claim, they only use it to get support by creating fear.” said UNHCR’s Senior PI Associate.
According to Professor Lee Hee-soo, Muslims have been residing in Europe for a long time. But after terrorist acts by extremist Islamic organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS began to occur, innocent Muslims in Europe began to face discrimination. “Many Europeans shouted at them to go back to their home country and that they don’t belong in their society. However, because they’ve lived in Europe for all their lives, Europe is their home, and they have nowhere else to go.” The Syrian refugees that moved to Europe in 2015 during the Syrian Refugee Crisis also faced similar discrimination. Professor Lee added here that a very small number of these Muslim minorities in Europe have also countered against such discriminatory acts, and that clearly there remains some negative sentiment in Europe towards the recent wave of refugees.
Additionally, there are also hasty generalizations being made about refugees from Muslim nations. For example, there are some Korean feminists that fear there will be an increase in the number of sex crimes, when there are already enough sexual assault cases occurring in the society. They claim that the patriarchal background the Muslim men grew up in gave them a negative influence in how they treat women.
However, Mun Jun-suk, the owner of Naeil Coffee, warns that making such generalizations is dangerous. “I see many Koreans saying that these refugees are dangerous because they are Muslims, and that they will create crime. But this is a big generalization that has been made against the refugees and Muslims in general. I believe that if we generalize like this, anyone can be a criminal.” The Senior PI Associate of UNHCR Korea also explained that there are currently 150,000 people in Korea that are a part of the Muslim community, including Koreans. She said, “If being a Muslim is as dangerous as many claims, why have the issues and problems with Muslims living in Korea to date been scarce?”
Unraveling Accusations: Is the Government Providing Special Help to These Refugees Seeking Jobs?
Many Koreans have also expressed anger towards the government helping the Yemeni refugees find jobs. While refugees can only be employed after six months of seeking asylum, the government has granted jobs to the refugees on Jeju Island because it would be unjust to let these refugees starve in the streets. Therefore, the government ended up employing them at a much quicker pace. “I think that the younger generations are angry because while they don’t receive any special help in employment, the government is suddenly hosting job fairs and linking these refugees to new jobs,” said Shin He-inn. Even though it is true that the government has been giving employment aid, many of the given employment areas were those facing manpower shortages, such as the fishing or restaurant industries in Jeju Island.
But according to our research, a lot of these refugees are facing difficulties in their given jobs. “Many of the Yemeni refugees have no experience of fishing or being on a boat for long periods of time. Also, since Muslims eat Halal food, cutting and tending pork in restaurants is not only a morally wrongful act, but it’s also a difficult job to handle,” said Professor Lee Hee-soo.
Naeil Coffee is a small coffee shop owned by Mun Jun-suk that hires African refugees as their baristas. During his interview, he mentioned that the Yemeni refugees are not ready to have a job yet. “They haven’t fully understood our culture yet, nor have they learned the language. These refugees first have to learn about the Korean work ethic while getting used to living here at the same time.”
In fact, the German government provides 500 hours of German lessons to all asylum seekers, while providing life and medical expenses and housing costs. They also provide employment lessons; both theoretical and practical, which basically allows the refugees that enter Germany to get used to living there.
Naeil Coffee’s CEO commented that Korea needs to have a similar system. “It has been difficult for refugees entering South Korea to be employed because of their lack of understanding of Korean culture and the language, and their lack of employment information. I feel like if Korea had thoroughly prepared for refugee aid, all of this wouldn’t have been such a problem.” Naeil Coffee’s model for barista each barista is provided with payment, they have life expenses and can afford housing. The café also provides medical insurance, and 1:1 Korean lessons. While CEO Mun teaches coffee brewing to the baristas, he also teaches Korea’s service culture. “When the refugees receive all these benefits at work, they can train themselves to be employed in other jobs too.
Analyzing the Dilemma Against Refugees
Those who are for accepting Yemeni refugees often claim that it is not okay to hate on them just because they are refugees. Professor Lee Hee-soo said: “We cannot just reject the refugees because we feel uncomfortable with them, because there is a law that we need to follow. Since they entered Korea legally, and unless they show potential to break the law, we cannot reject them from entering.” According to the Refugee Convention, and other conventions that concern the human rights of people globally, South Korea cannot return the refugees back to Yemen since their country is still at war.
But to take those who are against the acceptance of Yemeni refugees into consideration, some feel as if the safety of the Korean people should always be prioritized. For those who reside in Jeju Island, they also bring up many violent incidents that have occurred in involving illegal immigrants, and since related problems have not been resolved, taking in refugees will only harm the situation.
To be fair, it is impossible to satisfy all parties involved in this issue, but it is also true that South Koreans were not ready to suddenly have 500 asylum seekers seek asylum within their borders. “There is a lack of explanation as to why these refugees are seeking asylum in Korea in the first place, and as to why this is our country’s responsibility,” said Shin He-inn.
While many Koreans were also angry about the problematic visa-waiver policy, Cheong Wa Dae has promised to change this policy to better meet the demands of the people. Professor Lee Hee-soo feels that this is the best that they can do: “When what we can gain from this policy is about 95 percent, and the cons that are associated with it are only five percent, shouldn’t we work to amend the policy instead of discarding it completely?” It is difficult to satisfy everyone, but the government should work towards minimizing problems that may arise in the future.
Looking from a Global Perspective: What Sort of Benefits Will We Have After the Refugee Intake?
During the Syrian Refugee Crisis in 2015, Germany was very open to accepting Syrian refugees. There are currently certain economic benefits - and so, would Korea also be able to benefit?
According to Shin, the answer is yes. “While long-term and short-term investments made by the government are necessary to help the refugees adapt to society, these investments won’t go to waste. Since refugees are usually people who are forced to cross the border even if they desperately want to stay in their home country, they try their best to adapt to the country they come to. These refugees will be the ones who are working the hardest to adjust, potentially creating economic benefits.”
According to SBS’ radio broadcast, ‘Kim Sung-joon’s Current Affairs Observation Deck’, accepting refugees can also have further benefits in Korea. Park Mi-hyung, the Head of International Organization of Migration, Seoul Office, was a guest on the show and she mentioned how historically, the refugee movement across continents has created benefits such as making societies more diverse.
Although the issue surrounding Yemeni refugees may seem like unwanted pressure for the Korean society, such pressure could lead to beneficial change. However, in order to truly benefit, Korea needs to learn from the faults of their visa waiver policy and the way that they previously preceded with the 1951 Refugee Convention, and to closely observe the successes and failures with regards to refugee intake of other leading countries.
Korea’s Legal Responsibilities for the People of Korea and as a Signatory Country of the Refugee Convention
The government is responsible for listening to the Korean people, so they must listen to the fears that general Koreans have and also the Jeju Islanders. According to Professor Park Chan-un, a Professor of Law at Hanyang University, this refugee crisis needs to be recognized as a problem related to Korea as a whole, not only Jeju. All fears that Jeju Islanders have about these refugees should be regarded and resolved. Along with the concerns of those around the country regarding the visa-waiver policy, the government must pay attention to the Korean citizens and act to ensure the current disorder and disharmony does not happen again.
Since the Korean society tends to fear the unknown, according to Koo Gi-yeon, a Research Fellow at the Anthropology Department of Seoul National Unviersity’s Asia Center: “Korea isn’t a country that has been open to foreigners, so foreign workers
are a minority,” she said. Research Fellow Koo elaborated that, “Since refugees are even more unfamiliar, their minority status in Korea doubles. The hostile feeling towards foreigners need to be solved first in order to reduce other problems relating to the refugees.” She also stressed the importance of education for both the refugees and Koreans, as it helps both sides learn about each other better.
Taking the Korean community’s concerns into consideration, the government must also remember to fulfill its roles as a member state of the 1951 Refugee Convention. How can South Korea fulfill its role as an enforcing member of the convention? Many experts have commented on the need to change the refugee application procedures. Although there are laws that state how the screening process should be done, it is not actually carried out that way. According to Kim Yeon-ju, an official working at the Center for Refugee Rights in South Korea (NANCEN), the process of refugee screening is not applied as the Refugee Convention states. She explains that, “During the refugees’ first screening process, the rights specified in the convention does not come into effect. The overall examination process seems to judge the person’s eligibility from a suspicious point of view.”
Critics also claim that the application process is too strict. CEO Mun mentioned the book, My Name is Yiombi, and talked about how Mr. Yiombi had to prove that he was a refugee by bringing in official documents to the courtroom. “Since these refugees are in a hurry to escape, it is very difficult for them to bring such proof while running away. The court should begin to judge them from an objective point of view, since their current subjective view results in Korea’s low refugee acceptance rate and also certain refugees not being able to obtain refugee status when they truly need it.” Also, according to NANCEN, there is a need for more humanitarian assistance during the refugee screening
process. “Currently, the number of refugee applicants is increasing while the number of examiners remain unchanged. Since there are not enough workers to examine each application case carefully, work cannot be done thoroughly. The examination itself must be reviewed by the law within six months, which can also be extended. In the current situation, if the examination takes longer than a year, the refugees become unstable, waiting for further notice. Additionally, through the cycle, since the refugee acceptance rate is very low, the unacceptance notice for applicants often comes suddenly. It is almost impossible for the refugees to have a clear understanding and to agree with their unacceptance notice,” said Kim Yeon-ju.
To conclude, if the government actually implements the official statement made on August 1, it seems that it will be what is most suitable for both Korea and the refugees for now. We must amend necessary policies while also acting as a responsible signatory country of the 1951 Refugee Convention. “At the end of the day, it is the first time that Koreans have become this close to the Middle-Eastern refugee crisis that has been stirring other countries abroad, like those in Europe and North America. I believe that this could be a good learning opportunity,” said Shin He-inn. She posed the following questions: “Use this opportunity not to question, ‘Why does it have to be us?’ but instead, ‘What made the Yemeni nationals have no choice but to come to us?’.