South Korea denies refugee status to Yemenis on Jeju island, after wave of anti-immigrant sentiment
But an activist claims the pushback is coming from the Korean mainland as the island’s original inhabitants identify with the Yemenis, having once been refugees too
South Korea denied refugee status to almost 400 Yemenis on Wednesday, months after their arrival on the resort island of Jeju triggered a populist outcry.
Ethnically homogenous South Korea grants refugee status to only a tiny fraction of those who apply, despite having been ravaged by war itself within living memory.
About 500 people from the conflict-plagued Middle Eastern state arrived on Jeju – an island with about 600,000 residents – earlier this year, taking advantage of the visa-free access it offers to encourage tourism.
Their arrivals triggered a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in South Korea, where only around 4 per cent of the population are foreigners, mostly from China and Southeast Asia, and discrimination against migrant workers is widespread.
Many opponents cited the Yemenis’ Muslim religion and nearly 700,000 people – a record – signed a petition on the presidential website urging the tightening of what are already some of the world’s toughest refugee laws. The Jeju visa-exemption rules were rapidly changed to exclude Yemenis.
A total of 481 Yemenis formally applied for asylum and 34 had their request denied, while 339 were given humanitarian status, allowing them to remain in the country for a year, while the status of another 85 is still pending.
“Thirty-four applicants were denied because they either face criminal charges or are believed to have sought asylum here for economic purposes as they could have safely stayed in other countries,” Jeju Office of Immigration chief Kim Do-gyun said in a briefing reported by local media.
Last month an initial 23, mostly families with children or pregnant women, were given stay permits, which need to be renewed every 12 months and can be refused if the security situation in Yemen is deemed to have improved.
None were offered refugee status, a standing that grants holders health and labour insurance, as well as other benefits.
Since 1994 South Korea has approved just 4.1 per cent of applications, official figures show. The rules do not apply to North Koreans, who are automatically considered citizens of the South.
A recent opinion poll showed about half of South Koreans opposed accepting the Yemeni asylum seekers, with 39 per cent in favour and 12 per cent undecided.
But according to Jeju-based activist Gayoon Baek, those against granting the Yemenis asylum are mostly from the South Korean mainland and conservative groups, not Jeju’s original inhabitants.
“People who grew up and were born in Jeju are quite OK with the refugees,” said Baek, a member of the Jeju People’s Coalition for Refugee Rights.
“The problem is those who come from the mainland, and those who do not live here … when we receive complaint calls and questions about why we support refugees, all of them in fact, are calling us from the mainland.”
Baek said Jeju locals born and bred on the island sympathised with and to some extent even identified with the Yemenis’ plight. While the island’s original inhabitants are ethnically Korean, during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897), they were treated like foreigners, and their descendants have long claimed the province has its own distinct cultural identity.
Almost 70 years ago during a violent government crackdown on what they saw as a dangerous communist insurgency on Jeju, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 islanders fled to Japan, Baek said.
She added that today about 70 per cent of the Koreans living in Osaka are from the island: “How could Jeju people do this to Yemeni refugees when they have experienced the exact same thing?”
South Korea has one of the lowest refugee acceptance rates among OECD nations, at around 4 per cent, while other nations average around 25 per cent, according to Baek.
She said while President Moon Jae-in’s government claimed to emphasise human rights, it did not care about refugee rights and its actions had made the public view refugees negatively.
“They announced they would reinforce police forces in Jeju so that Koreans feel more secure. That kind of message gives the general public the impression that refugees are potential criminals.”
On Wednesday, the country’s opposition, the Liberal Democratic Party of Korea, continued pushing for a stronger rejection of refugees.
The adverse effects of refugee acceptance had been demonstrated all over Europe, party chairman Cho Kyoung-tae said in a local media report.
“[We should] refuse to accept indiscreet refugees, and make our own people’s human rights a top priority,” he said.
“By 2021, there will be 24,800 applicants applying for asylum in Korea each year … We need to discuss the refugee policy in a way that puts public safety first.”