South Korea suffers ugly refugee-phobia

Anti-refugee protest in Seoul on June 30.

The historic candlelight movement of 2016-17 that brought down the corrupt government of president Park Geunhye finally turned South Korea from one of the most reactionary anti-communist regime into a normal democracy. However, the recent debate over Yemenis refugees has revealed the naked face of deep-seated racism of many Koreans, writes Youngsu Won.

When 492 Yemenis arrived in Jeju Island, off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, in late April, many Koreans were shocked by the sudden appearance of unfamiliar faces.

These civil-war ridden Yemenis were able to find a safe haven because of the special visa-free regulation of Jeju Island, an internationally known tourist site.

The initial response from some extremist Koreans was shocking. These extreme racists held rallies, demanding the Yemeni refugees be deported immediately. They spread a long series of fake news about refugees through social media. Some sensationalist mainstream media joined this racist campaign, inciting anti-refugee sentiment even further.

Even some self-proclaimed feminists expressed their fears over the dangers from Yemenis Muslim males, while others mentioned the danger of Muslim terrorism. Though these fears have no reasonable or factual grounds, refugee-phobia rapidly spread online. Some human rights activists even faced death threats.

South Korea has an extremely poor record on the refugee issue. Although South Korea joined the Refugee Convention in 1992, which was a condition of South Korea joining the OECD, the first refugee was only recognised in 2001. However, only 792 people out of more than 30,000 applicants have been recognised since 1994.

Actually, last year, while 9942 applications were filed, the recognition rate was a mere 1.51%. This extremely low figure is in stark contrast with international average of 40-60%.

However, these refugees are hardly visible to many Koreans, who are mostly ignorant of the existence of refugee neighbours and their terrible conditions.

Basically, South Korean government’s refugee policy is quite disappointing. The refugee examination system is poorly run, and also lack of personnel makes the situation even worse. Actually, just 38 examination officials deal with more than 9000 cases a year. These officials and interviewers mostly lack human rights awareness and gender sensitivity, thus sometimes verbally abusing refugees and even threatening them.

The higher level expert commission was convened six times in 2017 to deal with 4542 cases. This means the commission examined 757 cases per session on average.

Also, in the course of the examining process, a number of abusive practices took place, humiliating vulnerable refugees. Interviews with refugee applicants are poorly translated and improperly reported. Some immigration officers and translators are even involved in fabricating reports.

Cases of forcible deportation from the airport have been repeatedly reported. The system to help refugee applicants is also poor, covering less than 5% of them. Asylum seekers are also not eligible for jobs before getting residence permit. This backward system and other inadequate factors makes refugee recognition almost impossible.

In this ominous atmosphere, NGOs and human rights groups began responding, advocating the fundamental rights of refugees and criticising the refugee-phobia of some extremists. They demanded the government take immediate action to protect refugees and help their survival in hostile surroundings.

In July, a coalition for refugee rights organised small counter-protests in the face of the Islamophobia protests. It is trying hard to fight back against horrendous Islamophobia and racial discrimination. However, appeals to human conscience and a cautious approach toward public sentiment doesn’t seem enough to protect refugees and fight back against racism.

So far, one of the most ominous signs is the result of a public survey on the Yemeni refugees. More than 70% were opposed to refugees and supported their deportation.

Koreans pride themselves on being ethnically homogenous, firmly believing that Korea is a single nation. This obsession breeds racism, ignoring the complex reality of Korean society’s transition to a multicultural society.

Ironically, the extremists have a double standard in that they are overly generous toward white foreigners, mostly from imperialist countries. On the other hand, they ignore or despise foreigners from the global South.

In a series of counter-mobilisations against the impeachment of Geunhye and her trials in late 2016 and 2017, right-wing Korean protesters waved the US flag Stars, and some Christian fundamentalists unfurled Israeli flags. Their outrageous behaviour was widely ridiculed by most people.

However, in face of Yemeni refugees seeking asylum, not a few democratically-minded citizens have expressed their worries about Muslims with differing fictional grounds. This is serious and dangerous for South Korea’s recently recovered democracy, which needs to take a further step toward recognition of the basic rights of social minorities and harmonious coexistence with refugees.

[First appeared at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Youngsu Won is coordinator of International Forum in Korea.]