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Rancor over ‘fake refugees’ continues to divide

July 27,2018
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Protesters hold up signs reading “Citizens first” at a rally in Seoul on June 30 to protest Korea’s acceptance of refugees. [NEWS1]
On July 14, about 500 people gathered at a public square in central Seoul holding signs that read “Citizens first,” “Reform the Refugee Act” and “Scrap the no-visa policy.”

Their rallying cry has become familiar in a homogenous country divided over how to handle over 500 Yemenis who came to Jeju Island earlier this year to seek asylum from civil war, taking advantage of the island’s visa-free program. The protesters said that they oppose accepting the Yemenis because they were “fake refugees” who simply came to Korea for jobs.

The uproar over “fake refugees” has dominated the conversation in Korea and affected people’s perception of asylum seekers. Under current law, anyone in Korea can apply for asylum even if he or she does not have legal status in the country or faces deportation. Undocumented immigrants can extend their stay for a few years by applying. “Some foreigners and brokers exploit the long screening process of two to three years to stay longer in Korea,” said an attorney at a law firm that supports refugees.

In the past year, the Ministry of Justice has caught 39 refugee brokers and 1,447 people who sought asylum through their services. On July 1, the enforcement division of the Korea Immigration Service said it found eight brokers who gathered about 180 Chinese people through online advertisements and helped them apply for asylum. They allegedly told clients to claim that they faced religious persecution in China for being adherents of the spiritual practice Falun Gong.

The Ministry of Justice considers these acts as abuses of the asylum process and has vowed to crack down on them, but it does not have the resources to handle the influx of refugee applications. Out of 32,733 people who applied for asylum between April 1994, when Korea first began accepting refugees, and 2017, the latest year that data is available from the ministry, about a third of applicants, or 9,942 people, applied last year, but the ministry only has 37 employees handling applications.

The result is a low acceptance rate compared to the rest of the world. Among the 32,733 people who applied for asylum, only 792 were granted refugee status, a 2.4 percent acceptance rate, much lower than the world average of 38 percent as calculated by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Jun Soo-yeon, a lawyer at the Advocates for Public Interest Law, which represents migrants, said decisions made in a hurry tend to lead to more denials than acceptance. Instead of blaming asylum seekers for appealing their case, Kim Dae-keun, a researcher at the Korean Institute of Criminology, said the government needs to make the screening process more efficient and fair.

Kim Jeong-do, head of the refugee division at the Korea Immigration Service, agrees. “As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Korea has an international responsibility to protect refugees,” he said.

Lee Il, another lawyer with the Advocates for Public Interest Law, argued for a system that provides “proper procedural rights on par with international standards” to better assess the applications of asylum seekers.

The country’s two largest political parties, the Democratic Party and Liberty Korea Party, have yet to clarify their stance on the issue to avoid backlash from voters, but out of all the bills on refugees introduced in the National Assembly over the past nine years, a third came within the past month.

Several lawmakers in the Liberty Korea Party, the conservative opposition, proposed laws to “filter out fake refugees” and “deny screening altogether for individuals who might pose a threat to national security.” Analysts believe news of the Yemeni asylum seekers has pushed Koreans further to the right on the refugee issue.

Faced with growing public pressure, the government is seeking ways to shorten the application process and the time that asylum seekers can spend in the country. Kim Yeon-joo, a lawyer at the refugee center Nancen, warns that the Ministry of Justice should not change the process in a way that limits asylum seekers’ right to appeal a denial of their status.

BY CHOI KYU-JIN, HAN YOUNG-IK AND NOH SHIN-YOUNG [noh.shinyoung@joongang.co.kr]