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Asylum seekers are low on cash

Some Yemenis in Jeju have resorted to sleeping outside
July 21,2018
Months after hundreds of Yemenis arrived on Jeju Island seeking asylum from civil war, some of them are running out of money and resorting to sleeping outside, drawing dismay and concern from locals.

The Jeju Immigration Office, which is handling the cases of more than 500 Yemeni asylum seekers, said that, as of Thursday, around 40 of them have been found sleeping in public places since June 8, when the first report was made.

That evening, seven Yemenis were found sleeping in Sinsan Park after depleting their savings.

On June 29, law enforcement authorities discovered that eight Yemenis had set up a tent at Hamdeok Beach on the island’s northern coast. Officers escorted them to a hotel, where the asylum seekers promised to pay back the hotel manager for their stay once they make enough money.

A total of 561 Yemenis arrived on Jeju this year without visas, taking advantage of the resort island’s visa-free program.

Among them, 549 have applied for asylum. Their case has divided a country largely unfamiliar with the plight of refugees. Some Koreans have called on the government to clamp down on the flow of asylum seekers.

In April, the Ministry of Justice prohibited the Yemenis from leaving Jeju Island, and in June, the ministry added Yemen to a list of countries whose citizens need visas to enter Jeju. While the local government has been helping the asylum seekers on the island find work, those who have been unable to are running low on savings.

“We’ve had some Yemenis come to us saying they are about to go broke and have no choice but to sleep in the open,” an immigration official said on the condition of anonymity.

On the Blue House’s website, a petition calling for the government to end visa-free entry to Jeju and consider scrapping or amending Korea’s refugee laws had over 714,875 signatures when it was closed on July 13.

The Blue House, which has promised to respond to petitions with more than 200,000 signatures, has yet to issue a statement on it.

Normally, asylum seekers can work in Korea six months after they submit their applications, but to address livelihood issues, the provincial government has allowed the Yemenis to take jobs prior to the six-month mark and introduced them to potential workplaces, such as restaurants and farms. Many of those businesses, though, have complained about cultural gaps.

A fish farm owner told the JoongAng Ilbo that he was confused when a Yemeni worker he hired suddenly stopped working in the middle of a day to pray.

Another asylum seeker said he quit his job at a pork restaurant because the owner would only serve his workers pork, which is forbidden in Islam. “The owner had no understanding that we Muslims don’t eat pork,” said the asylum seeker, who would only allow the paper to refer to him as Fahro.

Faced with growing public pressure, the government is now looking for ways to shorten the application process. Asylum seekers in Korea can stay in the country while their refugee status is under review. That process can take anywhere from a few months to years.

Justice Minister Park Sang-ki told lawmakers on Thursday that the ministry was looking to reduce the number of stages in the process, currently at five, to three and set up an outside panel of experts to vet the asylum seekers.

A total of 32,733 people have applied for asylum to the Korean government since April 1994, when it first began accepting such applications, according to the Justice Ministry. Of the total, 792 have been granted asylum over the past quarter century, a 4.1 percent approval rate.

Of the 32,733, 25 percent, or 8,193, sought asylum because of religious persecution in their home country, while 7,088 cited political persecution they would face if they returned home. Of them, 3,620, or 11 percent, said they would face persecution for being ethnic minorities.

Korea is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and enacted local legislation in 2013 to comply with the convention.

BY YU SUNG-KUK, KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]