S. Korea embroiled in unexperienced debate over foreign refugees

Lim Chang-won Reporter Posted : 2018-06-25 16:13 Updated : 2018-06-25 16:13
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[Yonhap Photo]

SEOUL -- Refugees From African and other war-torn countries have been a global issue, but South Korea was embroiled in a new social debate this month over unacclaimed visitors especially from Yemen that spilled over into the office of President Moon Jae-in.

The debate erupted this month when the justice ministry said it has removed Yemen from its visa waiver program on the southern resort island of Jeju due to a surge in the number of refugees. In Jeju, about 1,000 foreign refugees have sought asylum this year, including 549 from Yemen, 353 from China, 99 from India and 14 from Pakistan.

To promote tourism, the island has introduced a visa-free program allowing foreign visitors to stay for up to 90 days. However, the program was not applied to visitors from 11 countries such as Iran, Sudan and Syria. North Korean refugees are an exception.

Rights activists insisted the justice ministry's move would spread misunderstandings and prejudices against refugees and increase public anxiety. In a statement last week, the Center for Refugee Rights in South Korea urged the government to improve its screening system and stop discriminating against refugees, saying they have to wait for seven months on average before receiving preliminary results on their status.
However, public opinion is not favorable to them, reflecting concerns about security and other problems caused by refugees. A survey of 500 adults, conducted by Realmeter, a Seoul-based pollster on June 20, found that 49.1 percent said South Korea should not accept foreign refugees, compared to 39 percent which sided with rights activists.

A petition was posted on June 13 to oppose an inflow of refugees into South Korea, followed by a flurry of appeals opposing or supporting it. As of Monday, the petition has attracted more than 400,000 supporters.

The petitioner said it's premature for South Korea to accept such a large number of refugees at once.

"Europe and other developed countries have historical precedents to apologize for refugee issues. Please think again about whether there is a reason why (South) Korea should accept refugees," the petition read, calling for the strict screening of foreigners seeking asylum in South Korea.

The presidential website for public petitions has served a place for active public debate since Moon, a former human rights lawyer, took office in March last year. Moon has used the website to collect public opinion.

Government data showed 34,890 foreigners have applied for refugee status since South Korea revised a law in 2013 to ease tight restrictions on them. Only 839 people have been officially granted refugee status with 1,540 others given an unofficial stay on humanitarian grounds.