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Korea to shorten asylum process

Current procedure for refugee status can drag on for years
June 30,2018
Korea will shorten the application process for asylum seekers, the Ministry of Justice said on Friday, bowing to public pressure against the country’s acceptance of refugees after a wave of Yemenis arrived on Jeju Island this year to escape civil war.

“The refugee recognition process has five stages in total,” the ministry said, “but we will shorten the procedure to three or four stages.”

Korea is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and enacted local legislation in 2013 to comply with the convention. “We have both the international and national duty to protect refugees,” the ministry said, “but we are aware of the concerns of citizens, and we are trying to come up with a measure to lessen them while still carrying out the country’s responsibility to refugees.”

More than 500 Yemenis entered Jeju Island between January and May this year, taking advantage of a visa-free program that Jeju adopted in 2002 to boost tourism on the resort island.

“A total of 552 Yemenis registered for refugee recognition in Korea from January to May,” the ministry said, “and counting an additional 403 Yemenis who registered for recognition from 1994 to 2017, there have been a total of 982 Yemeni asylum seekers in Korea.”

In Korea, an asylum seeker can apply to the Ministry of Justice to be recognized as a refugee, which is defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as someone who is fleeing from his or her home country due to persecution, war or violence.

A recognized refugee gains legal entitlement to stay in the country and support for social security, including for education, medical aid and housing.

If the ministry rejects an asylum seeker, he or she can appeal the decision to the justice minister. If the minister upholds the rejection, an asylum seeker can then bring the case to an administrative court and get a total of three trials, including appeals. If the administrative court upholds the rejection, the asylum seeker is deported.

Korea’s Justice Ministry considers the two reviews and three trials as the “five stages” of the process, which can last for years. The ministry did not specify which part of the process it would remove.

During that time, an asylum seeker is allowed to stay in the country. He or she can work six months after submitting an application for refugee status.

Last week, the Blue House said it would make an exception for Yemeni asylum seekers and allow them to find jobs before the six-month mark “for humanitarian reasons.” The provincial government has been introducing the Yemenis to work that won’t take jobs away from locals. But many Koreans have taken issue with this policy.

A petition on the Blue House’s website calls for the government to end visa-free entry to Jeju and consider scrapping or amending Korea’s refugee laws.

“Foreigners can enter the country without a visa for a month and then stay without limit while their refugee application process is ongoing,” the petition read. The petition referred to cases of foreigners who were not asylum seekers but still applied for refugee status and stayed in Korea to find jobs.

Last July, the Jeju police uncovered a group of Koreans who brokered a deal with Chinese nationals to help them apply for refugee status on the island and find jobs after the six-month mark. The Chinese nationals were told to pretend they were part of a persecuted religious group from China and given legal advice on how to lengthen their stay.

As of Friday afternoon, more than 541,740 people signed the petition. The Blue House is required to formally respond to petitions that gain more than 200,000 signatures within a month of the petition’s submission.

The government has already banned the hundreds of Yemenis on Jeju Island from traveling to other parts of Korea. On June 1, it also added Yemen to a list of countries whose citizens are required to have visas to enter Jeju.

The Ministry of Justice said it will dispatch four officials and two interpreters next week to join the two officials and two interpreters in charge of refugee applications at the Jeju Immigration Office.

“The Yemeni asylum seekers who arrived this year started interviews last week because so many of them came from April to May,” a Justice Ministry official said. “The Jeju Immigration Office was too busy taking care of registration procedures and didn’t have time to start the interviews.”

The ministry conducts one-on-one interviews to determine whether applicants are fleeing from persecution, war or violence in their home country and have well-founded fear of persecution. It expects to complete the first review of Yemenis who came this year in five to six months.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]