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Refugees: a Very Korean Issue?

On June 30, 2018, in front of Donghwa Duty Free Shop in Jongno-gu, Seoul, the slogan "I oppose the refugees" appeared. However, in front of Sejongno Police Station, a mere 70 meters from Donghwa, the slogan “I oppose your refugee opposition” sat in conflict. Recently, the controversy over the Yemeni refugees seeking sanctuary on Jeju Island, as a result of civil war in their homeland, has been growing. At the same time, local protests have been held in Seoul against the entry to Korea for those refugees. Now, it appears, the  refugee crisis is no longer a problem for foreign countries. The moral conundrum has reached the shores of Korea.


Increasing Refugees


Generally, the term refugee refers to someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. However, in recent years, the term has come to include people seeking to find a new home in a foreign country on the basis of political factors related to racial or ideological causes. According to the UNHCR’s (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) global Trend Report released in 2017, 68.5 million people, over the last five years, would fall into the category of refugee. The reality of this number has now become a very Korean issue as refugees from Yemen have now found sanctuary on Jeju Island.


Compared to last year, the number of foreigners applying for refugee status in Korea has increased 132% (7,637 individuals compared to 3,337 last year). Indeed, by June 11, 2018, the number of foreigners on Jeju had increased to 8,262 and this trend is expected to continue in the future. South Korea joined the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in December 1992, and since the first refugee application in April 1994, 20,270 people had applied for refugee status by the end of May 1998. The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted by the United Nations in 1951, after World War II, so as to set out the definitions and rights associated with refugees. As of the end of May 2018, 20,361 of the 40,470 refugee applicants had been screened, of which only 839 were recognized as refugees. However, some 1,540 were granted humanitarian residence rate status (as per the UN convention, humanitarian status refers to conditions, such as illegal treatment or punishment or other circumstance, under which an individual’s life is placed at risk). Thus, for Korea, the refugee recognition rate stands at 4.1% and the refugee protection rate, including the issuance of humanitarian residence permits, is 11.7%. Considering that the world average refugee recognition level is 38%, Korea’s refugee recognition rate is some nine times lower than other nations. Also, our nation’s refugee protection rate is significantly lower than the 41.3% UNHCR determined world average refugee protection rate.



In 2015, civil war broke out in Yemen, and according to the UNHCR, about 280,000 refugees left Yemen in November 2017. In April 2018, the United Nations declared the Yemen civil war the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis of the year. Some of these Yemeni refugees made their way to Malaysia because it is possible to have non-visa entry to this country. However, after an extension of stay in Malaysia was blocked, they moved to Jeju Island, where they could  stay up to 30 days without a visa (until June 1, 2018, at which time the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were to exclude Yemen from non-visa nation status). Of the 561 people arriving in Jeju Island, 519 have applied for refugee status. Although, The Ministry of Justice decided not to allow the Yemenis to enter the country on June 1, 2018, the controversy surrounding the proliferation of refugee applicants is growing.


Korea and Refugees

The notion and reality of refugees are unfamiliar to the everyday Korean and the common sentiment expressed, understandably, is trepidation.


Opposition Voices

As of 9:30 am, on July 6, 2018, 631,000 people, in a Blue House National Petition, came to the consensus not to accept refugees. This represents a larger number of participants compared to any previous petition. According to this Blue House National Petition, the petition titled "Abuse of Civil Law, Immigration and Refugee Application Permits for the Illegal Refugees on Jeju Island" was to be published on June 13, 2018. In just five days, it received 200,000 consents and met the requirement (more than 200,000 consents within a month) to warrant a response from the government. Especially, petitioners against the Yemen refugees were concerned that even though the Refugee Law in 2012 allowed foreigners to enter the country without a visa and stay for one month, refugee applicants were eligible to stay for a limited period of time. Also, the proposed economic benefits to the economy of refugees were questioned as was the authenticity of many claims for refugee status.


Unfamiliar Religion, Islam

In South Korea, a lot of people are still concerned about the unfamiliar culture of Islam. Indeed, there are many Europeans who argue that the acceptance of Islamic refugees has led to a crime rate increase and a more fractured society.

Farther antipathy towards Islam is stoked because many Muslims are reluctant to co-exist peacefully with other religions.  This was brought into stark relief by a citizen who participated in the anti-refugee protest: they say, "In East Asia, Korea is the only country that has a refugee law. Up to now, 500 refugees from Yemen have come in, but after knowing our refugee law, more Muslims will keep coming. I cannot live with them because I feel uneasy when I think of how they treat women and seek to impose their religion and culture on others." The vast majority of the refugees from Yemen are Islamic.


Fear of Terror

Another core issue surrounding the acceptance of Muslim refugees is the terrorist threat posed by this religion: indeed, most of the recent terrorist attacks in Europe were committed by Muslims. Lee Ho-taek, a chief at a refugee judicial institution,, at a forum held last year, said, "The terrorist attacks on London's subway in London in July 2005 and December 2015; the terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena in May 2017; concurrent terrorist attacks at seven locations in Paris on November 2015; and other terrorist attacks in various parts of Europe, such as the vehicular attacks in Spain in July 2016, December 2016 and August 2017 in Germany, and Barcelona in 2017, the terrorists were mostly Muslim immigrants." Indeed, the main reason for the opposition Muslim refugees is the issue of security. The public opinion polling period 'Real Meter' conducted a survey in which 49.1% of the respondents refused the admittance of refugees to Jeju Island and 64.4% citing security issues as their prevailing concern.


Unstable Policy

In Korea, that the entitlements afforded to refugees should be borne by the Korean people has served only to increase the public’s rejection of refugees. Once a person has been granted refugee status in Korea, they will be able to receive about KRW 430,000 per person per month or about KRW 1,800,000 for a family of five or more. As a result, there are many of the opinion that low-income Korean families should be given financial priority over refugees.

In Korea, the refugee determination process consists of a physical examination, interview and factual investigation. The interview and fact finding steps are based on the documents submitted by the refugee applicant. However, the problem is that video recording is not implemented properly during the refugee screening process. According to a report by the Herald Economy, on June 8, 2018, a representative of Sanuri, Hong Il-pyo, said, "Out of the 1,770 refugee interviews conducted nationwide last year, only 80 of them were recorded." Also, he added, “It is necessary to notify the refugee interviewers that they can apply for video recording at the time of the interview. The relevant laws must be revised such that the efficiency and transparency of the interview process is enhanced.”


On July 5, 2018, the Ministry of Justice announced that it had increased the speed of the screening process by adding six extra screening staff members to Jeju Immigration. As a result, the number of staff for refugees in Jeju has increased to 10 in total, with five being in charge of judiciary affairs, four to communicate in Arabic and one in charge of the judiciary staff. The Justice Department predicted that five screeners would result in a  Yemeni refugee applicant being processed within two to three months. This means that by October of this year the 486 Yemeni refugees in Jeju will be approved for refugee status.


A World That Is Turning Its Back on Refugees

Whilst the refugee crisis may by a new issue for Koreans, Europe has been contending with this issue for many years. Indeed, the local support for refugee acceptance was high in many European nations last year. However, in 2018, the sentiment has changed: there is a rising awareness amongst many Europeans that this seemingly unlimited flow of refugees will have a profound effect on the culture and security of their homelands. They are also beginning to resent a political class that appears concerned only with bullying them into submission rather than listening to their concerns. Indeed, some countries, such as Poland, have outright refused to accept any Muslim refugees.


In Europe, the Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011, precipitated a refugee crisis that has continued to this day. Those refugees who travelled to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa crossed Greece and Italy via sea routes and Hungary through a land route. As a result, one million people flowed into Europe in 2015.


In 2015, German Chancellor Merkel allowed thousands of Syrian refugees to enter the country. However, as the number of refugees increased so did the number of refugee related crimes. Mia V, a 15-year-old girl, was stabbed to death in a drugstore on January 27, 2018, by her former boyfriend, an Afghan refugee applicant. As a result of this increase in refugee crimes and terrorism, the hearts of German citizens are turning against refugees. According to local media reports, including the federation's Ministry of Family Affairs, a research team at the University of Zurich found that crime had increased by 10.4% in Lower Saxony from 2015 to 2016 and that 92.1% of this increase was related to immigrants. A representative of the Christian Socialist Party (CSU), a partner of the German coalition government, and home secretary Seehofer complained about Merkel's refugee policy on July 2, 2018,   thus heightening fears around the collapse of the coalition. However, Merkel and Seehofer have agreed to strengthen border crossings in Austria to prevent refugees seeking asylum in other EU countries to enter Germany. As a result, Germany will establish a refugee transfer center at its  border with Austria to examine the status of refugees. Seehofer also referred to the Christian Socialist Party and the Christian Democratic Party’s intensified discussions to prevent further inflows of illegal immigrants to Germany and Austria. As you can see, Germany, which once was unconditionally in favor of accepting refugees, has now decided to adopt a more rigorous procedure for determining refugee status.


On June 20, 2018, the Hungarian parliament passed a bill called “Stop Soros,” which bans support for illegal immigrants and punishes individuals and organizations that violate this bill. According to this law, providing information to illegal immigrants about the refugee application process or providing financial assistance will result in a prison sentence of one year or less or exile. Also, a constitutional amendment was also passed to prevent foreigners from settling in Hungary. Sandor Pinter, home secretary of Hungary, said that Hungarians expect the government to use all necessary means to combat illegal immigration and those that would facilitate. He also added that citizens want to use this law to prevent Hungary from becoming a country of immigrants.



Thus, the overall sentiment of goodwill towards refugees has become tarnished in Europe as a direct result of its unconditional acceptance of refugees. From this point of view is it not prudent that Korea treads very carefully with regards to its dealings with the refugee crisis?



김지윤  jeeyoon0817@hanmail.net

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