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Debate Rages over Acceptance of Yemeni Refugees in Korea

As refugees from Yemen have recently arrived on Jeju Island, there has been growing debate over whether Korea should accept Yemeni asylum seekers as refugees or not. Furthermore, the government has announced that it would decide the acceptance or rejection of these asylum seekers by this September, so the situation does not seem likely to blow over easily. The Sungkyun Times (SKT), therefore, introduces the history of refugees, analyzes the grounds for pros and cons of accepting the Yemenis, and suggests how Korea and the world should handle refugees.

*Declaring Definition in This Article
In this article, refugee means to be officially accepted by a nation’s government by law or agreement regarding refugees, while asylum seekers are defined as a group who claim that they are refugees but are waiting for permission to be allowed to remain in a nation and to be granted refugee status.

Why Refugee Crisis Is So Serious in Korea
Refugee Status in Korea
In 2011, the Refugee Act was first enacted in Asia. This Act defined a refugee as a foreigner who cannot receive protection from his or her native country or does not want to live in their homeland because they live in the fear of being prosecuted. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) of Korea showed that since the country started to accept refugee applications in 1994, the total number of asylum seekers has reached 40,470 as of May, 2018. In addition to this, the number of asylum seekers has been increasing. There were 324 asylum seekers in 2009, but the number increased by 1574 in 2013, and by 9942 in 2017. The Korean government’s criteria for conferring legal refugee status, however, is so strict that asylum seekers who have been officially accepted as refugees account for only 4% of the total applicants as of June 30th, 2018; this figure is far lower than the world average of 38%. This strict standard can be explained by the case of an Iranian middle school student. On July 11th, a middle school student posted a petition to ask the government to accept her Iranian classmate as a refugee on the Blue House’s petition website. The Iranian student converted from Islam to Christianity in Korea, and he applied for refugee status because his change of religion was regarded as an apostate in Iran. The Iranian, however, could not become a legal refugee since an appellate court ruled that there was no evidence of him being prosecuted in Iran. As a result, the Iranian student has until September to stay in Korea.

Background of Heated Debate
While Yemen’s civil war was going on for three years, many Yemenis entered Malaysia where they were allowed to stay without a visa. Yemeni refugees, however, could not stay any longer in Malaysia due to the limit on the length of their stay. At the end of last year, Kuala Lumpur and Jeju Island created a low-priced direct flight between the two, so they headed for Jeju Island which also operated a visa-waiver policy, like Malaysia, in order to attract tourists. This allowance means that 561 Yemeni asylum seekers have landed on Jeju Island, 519 of whom are now applying for refugee status. As this situation has become known to the public, some people have expressed antipathy toward Islam and have become concerned about employment due to the effect of refugees seeking jobs. Public controversy is also shown in a survey conducted by Realmeter, the polling organization. 53.4% of Koreans who were polled said that the Korean government should not allow Yemeni asylum seekers to stay in Korea, while 37.8% were against that idea. Furthermore, on June 30th, two different protests were held on Sejong-ro in Seoul at the same time and at a close distance. One protest was for accepting Yemeni asylum seekers as refugees; the other protest was against them. As it can be seen from the protests, the pros and cons of this issue are creating a strong conflict in Korean society.

Protests Against Accepting Yemeni Asylum Seekers(Left) (hani.co.kr) / Protests for Accepting Yemeni Asylum Seekers(Right) (hani.co.kr)

Pros and Cons for Accepting Yemeni Asylum Seekers

Pros: Supplying Labor for Domestic Industries
One of the reasons why some people agree with accepting Yemeni asylum seekers is because some Korean industries, particularly on Jeju Island, lack labor because people avoid these kinds of industries which require hard and dangerous work. Yemeni asylum seekers, however, can help such industries that lack labor. The government has allowed Yemeni asylum seekers to work in primary industries on Jeju Island. There was opposition to accepting Yemeni asylum seekers due to fierce competition for jobs, but after this declaration, the concern eased. A Jeju news report also said that Yemeni people suffered from a lack of money since they could not leave Jeju before they got the result of their refugee status application. Therefore, they need to find a job to make a living in Korea right away. Moreover, Jeju also suffers from a shortage of labor because of the growing number of their aging population. Indeed, Jeju Island recruited laborers for harvesting tangerines in 2017 and for harvesting garlic this year. The number of farms which requested more workers was 520. In this desperate situation, there is an opinion that the government has had no choice but to allow Yemenis to work in Korea. Also, some employers expressed a sense of relief by hiring Yemenis; the manager of a fish farm said in an interview that he was satisfied with hiring Yemenis because there were no workers to hire before.

Yemeni Asylum Seekers Who Want to be Employed in Korea (news.joins.com)

Pros: Need for Having Humanitarian Attitude
Another reason why some people claim that Korea has to accept Yemeni asylum seekers is that people should know that Yemeni refugees surged into Korea due to serious situations in Yemen, and therefore, it is a matter of life and death for them. Yemen’s civil war has lasted for three years since March 2015, with over 10,000 people dead and over seven million people suffering from starvation and serious malnutrition. Regarding this situation in Yemen, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) emphasizes that protection for asylum seekers is the agreement with the international community and that the government should guarantee rights in the United Nations (UN) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Korea’s Refugee Act. Also, some people insist that Korea should contribute more to the world since Korea has become an advanced country thanks to decades of international aid and assistance. While Korea was under Japanese rule and a provisional government was set up in Shanghai, Korean ancestors were also political refugees. Moreover, the fact that there were a lot of Korean refugees in Korea after the Korean War and that North Korean defectors still remain shows that the country is not away from its own refugee issues. Refugee history also shows that the United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency (UNKRA), which has great influence on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), was originally made for refugees from the Korean War.

Korean Refugees Who Were In the Same Situation with Yemenis (apjjf.org)

Cons: Difficulty in National Reconciliation
It might be too early to accept Yemeni asylum seekers because of the cultural differences between Korean and Yemenis. Accepting Yemeni people without caring about the cultural gap would intensify the confusion in Korean society. The most important reason for this concern is that these two nations, Yemen and Korea, are from completely different cultural areas. Muslims have religious overtones in all areas of their lives; they regularly go to pray even during work hours and eat only Halal food, which refers to lawful or permitted food in the Arabic language. In Korea, however, there are only 14 restaurants which have received the certification for specialism in Halal food. Indeed, a survey conducted by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) shows that 67.9% of tourists, a large proportion of whom responded, have difficulty eating food while traveling in Korea. Even though Korea is trying to change into a more multicultural society, people still have a perception that “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” On the other hand, some Muslims might want to stick to their culture and lifestyle. This difference in thinking and culture could cause some conflicts between Yemenis and Korean. For example, a television (TV) program showed a Muslim migrant who sent his children to a Muslim school instead of a Korean school in Korea. Both cultures are completely different, so if Yemeni asylum seekers reject to be educated about Korean culture, there could be confusion regarding their different perceptions of Korean society.

Cons: Worries from Preconception
The second reason for claiming that Korea should not accept Yemeni asylum seekers is based on some Koreans’ preconceptions of Yemeni people. Some Korean people still have prejudices and preconceptions about Islamic culture. In Korea, there are few chances to learn about Islamic culture; world history textbooks for Korea College Scholastic Assessment Test (CSAT) cover Islamic nations in only one chapter among 18 chapters. Also, most Koreans usually get to know about Muslims through news about Islamic terrorism mostly committed by the Islamic State (IS) or cases of sex crimes. In particular, the case of a Yemeni worries Koreans. In 2014, a Yemeni who was an asylum seeker brought khat, an addictive Yemeni drug which is illegal in Korea but legal in Yemen, into Korea and was arrested. Many Koreans may have the wrong preconception about Muslims, so they are not willing to accept Yemenis into their daily lives. This trend can be seen in a survey conducted by the Korea JoongAng Daily research team which shows that 66.6% of 1000 Korean have negative attitudes toward Muslims. As some Koreans tend to be afraid of Muslims because of simple ignorance, it would take a long time to accept Yemeni asylum seekers in Korea.

How to Prepare Better for the Future
Steps That the Current Government Has Taken
During the 20th National Assembly of Korea, there have been four suggested revisions of the Refugee Act, all of which are still pending except a revision suggested by Hwang Ju-hong from the Party for Democracy and Peace. Furthermore, the revision that Hwang Ju-hong suggested does not regard refugees but is in concern of the corruption of officers who screen asylum seekers. On August 1st, as a response to the petition which 710,000 people had agreed on, the Blue House announced that the government would organize law and policy properly rather than withdraw from the 1951 Refugee Convention or abolish the Refugee Act. The government now acknowledged this debate and has started to prepare related policies. The government claimed that it would prepare to establish this kind of policy for refugee settlement in Korea. If Yemeni asylum seekers are accepted as refugees in Korea, the government will provide mandatory Korean cultural education and a mentoring program to support their settlement.

Future Prospect of Yemeni Asylum Seekers in Korea
Until now, there has been no example of accepting asylum seekers as refugees on such a large scale in Korea, so the debate has inevitably occurred. This debate over accepting Yemeni asylum seekers, however, could help Korea to follow global trends and to reach an agreement between the government and citizens. In addition, the current Refugee Act and related policies needs to be changed. The Act has not been revised since 2011, and there was no consensus on dealing with asylum seekers at the 20th National Assembly. Therefore, Kim Seung-gyu, former Minister of Justice, claimed that an amendment to harmonize refugees in Korea is necessary to solve the problems of refugees’ abusing the Refugee Act to get job in Korea purposely. He also added that the purpose of doing this is to assimilate asylum seekers in Korea harmoniously. Plus, it is important to find a proper compromise between the citizens, who would closely live with asylum seekers, and the government, which has an obligation to protect its citizen. Furthermore, as the refugee crisis is internationally crucial, the world needs to prepare solutions for these problems. On June 29th, a summit of the 28 countries of the European Union (EU) announced a joint statement that they would establish a migrant center for refugees and economically support any countries which accepted refugees to relieve the burden of accepting refugees across Europe. Problems still remain and consensus has just started to form, but it is expected that a refugee crisis can be solved with the cooperation of the global village in the future.

The government and the public are ambivalent about accepting Yemeni asylum seekers in Korea, but the SKT anticipates that both could reach a content agreement as a solution for this refugee issue in Korea. In addition, this debate could provide everyone with an opportunity to increase attention on not only Yemenis asylum seekers on Jeju but also global refugees. Global citizens should help each other, and in the future, nobody knows if Korea might need help from other countries again.

박예지  ggoomtlex2@skku.edu

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