A few hundred miles away from the bustling capital of South Korea, one can find a small island replete with lush mountains, fields of cosmos flowers, and vibrant bodies of water. Here, Korean city dwellers seek an escape from their demanding lives, and tourists from all corners of Asia come to view the natural landscape.
While a flourishing tourism industry gives Jeju Island an appreciable boost in the Korean economy, it has otherwise been considered detached from the mainland’s politics. Throughout the turmoil of a presidential impeachment and widespread protests against government corruption in Korea in 2017, the small population of Jeju Island did not exert much political sway.
In early 2018, however, the name of the island decorated headline banners for something very different than its natural wonders. Some 500 asylum seekers from Yemen, Syria, and Egypt poured into Jeju Island, constituting an influx that dwarfed the slow trickle of refugees typically seen in South Korea. These refugees– the majority of them Yemeni– were fleeing a catastrophic civil war that has claimed more than 60,000 lives to date.
Many of them initially sought refuge in Malaysia, but upon learning that Malaysia was not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, they took budget-airline flights to South Korea in search of better living conditions (Kwon). This was made possible by a 30-day visa-free policy devised by the Korean government to attract foreign tourists to Jeju Island. For these refugees, the end of the visa-free period marked South Korea’s transition from a sanctuary to a hostile foreign land.
In the weeks that followed, a resounding outcry against the Middle Eastern refugees was heard in urban areas of the Korean peninsula. Thousands of protesters took to the streets demanding that the refugees be deported immediately; 700,000 more signed a petition imploring the president to put deportation into effect. It quickly became the most popular petition on the online platform offered by the President’s Office, surpassing pleas to decriminalize early-stage abortion or to take measures against child pornography.
In response, the government proposed an action plan. Parts of it, such as the hiring of translators at the Jeju Immigration Office, were inoffensive; other parts simply gave into the public’s apprehension, adding twelve Middle Eastern and African nations to a list of nations excluded from the visa exemption policy.
For those from a country that was devastated by civil war and poverty not too many decades ago, why was it unimaginable for them that others would be seeking refuge from the same? Clearly, factors other than a simple lack of empathy were at play. Political context complicates what people may see as hypocrisy: South Korea has only recently begun to embrace multiculturalism as an alternative to the strong, homogeneous national identity that had been set in stone following 35 years of colonial rule under Imperial Japan.
Though Koreans were initially reluctant to permanently welcome any foreigners into their country, diplomatic ties with the U.S. following the Korean War (1950-1953) favorably exposed them to Western cultures that were viewed as admirable rather than alien. Despite the steady integration of Western and East Asian immigrants into Korean society, South Korea has turned a cold shoulder on refugees ever since it settled into economic stability since the 1960s.
In 1992, the country became a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, pledging to play their part in protecting refugees from around the globe whose lives or freedom are threatened in their home countries. In 2012, Korea even adopted an official refugee law, but it seems that their consequent humanitarian duties have been all but abandoned.
For the past two decades, the Korean government accepted only 42,000 asylum-seeking applications, and of those, only 849 people (about two percent) were granted refugee status (Ock). Those permitted to stay have formed enclaves that insulate them from full cultural or linguistic integration. Their job prospects are severely limited and due to their illegal status, many face abuse– refugees attest to working for weeks without being paid, working 18-20 hours a day, and even being physically assaulted by employers (Ghani). While the recent Yemeni refugee crisis was a rude awakening to Korea’s mishandling of its international obligations, it is merely a symptom of a decades-long problem that was waiting to come to a head.
On its face, it is unclear what motivates such intense xenophobia in a highly educated, well-to-do country that could comfortably accommodate a few hundred refugees. A study by Hankook Ilbo, a major Korean news outlet, investigated the impact of variables such as age, gender, and monthly income on Koreans’ attitude toward Yemeni refugees (Lee and Park). The trends gathered in this survey did not paint a clear picture. Respondents in their 40s were less opposed to refugee acceptance than those in their 20s and 30s, despite younger people being the driving force behind Korea’s shift to liberalism. Women objected more strongly than men, and monthly income had no discernible effect on people’s opinions. Put together, these results did little to explain the nationwide uproar that is so plainly visible on the streets.
Refugees also struggle against the Korean legal system. The Justice Minister himself cautioned that refugees who “contravene the social order” would be deported, and at the same time, he announced strict penalties for “refugee brokers” who facilitated refugees’ migration (Park).
As a result, 56 out of the 500 Yemeni refugees were ordered to leave Korea, 400 were granted tenuous “humanitarian stay” permits that could be revoked upon any trivial infraction, and only two were granted refugee status (Global Detention Project).
To allow refugees any chance of successful integration, the Korean government must lift the unforgiving legal standards that leave their right to stay constantly hanging in the balance. The government ought to take the advice of experienced activists in the U.S. and stop treating criminalization of the most oppressed as an antidote to social disorder. Practically, this would look like lifting travel restrictions that limit refugees’ right to move outside their port of arrival, not penalizing asylum seekers who had to rely on brokers to get to the country in which they are seeking asylum, and discontinuing the xenophobically charged profiling of refugees who have no reason to be suspected of criminal activity.
Between 2015 and 2017, the number of people applying for refugee status in South Korea nearly doubled. The 2018 refugee crisis was not an isolated incident, but rather a harbinger for a continued increase in refugees seeking asylum. Thus far, South Korea has gotten away with positioning itself as separate from the crises in Europe and Africa, but it can shirk its responsibility for only so long. The Korean public is not entirely to blame; the ethnic homogeneity of the country and historical need for nationalism have rendered Koreans predisposed to xenophobic beliefs. But it is possible to be both patriotic and open-minded. Rather than giving into citizens’ fear-driven demands, the government must exempt refugees from punishment for petty crimes and assist their path to economic independence. Unless they reverse course on refugee mistreatment, further down this road is a social hierarchy reminiscent of America’s prison industrial complex and systemic discrimination. The Korean government has a chance to join its international peers by treating refugees with kindness; they must do so before intolerance calcifies in the country’s politics.
Furthermore, South Korea should fulfill their humanitarian obligation by establishing programs that allocate financial, social, and legal aid to refugees not unlike existing welfare programs abroad and at home. While some initial political backlash is to be expected– those who were anti-refugee will not become pro-refugee-welfare overnight– such reforms may ultimately lead to a change in public attitudes. Whereas the continual deportation of refugees will simply confirm Koreans’ beliefs that refugees are criminals who do not belong in the country, increased legal forgiveness and assistance will give refugees a chance to legally participate in society and disprove perceptions of criminality. It will also allow refugees to become more self-sufficient if those who worked skilled jobs in their home countries were able to legally occupy higher paying jobs than are currently open to refugees in the fishing and agricultural industries. In a country that places high value on individual merit and frowns upon non-nationals who apparently take without giving, refugees need room to demonstrate their virtues, both for their own welfare and for improving public opinion of refugees so Korea can assume its appropriate role in aiding in the global refugee crisis.
Al-Dawsari, Nadwa, and Fatima Abo Alasrar. “South Korea’s ‘Yemeni Refugee Problem.’” Middle East Institute, 6 May 2021, www.mei.edu/publications/south-koreas-yemeni-refugee-problem.
Ghani, Faras. “’If We’re Fake, Tell Us Who the Real Refugees Are’.” Human Rights | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 18 Aug. 2018, www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/8/18/yemeni-refugee-on-escaping-war-and-life-on-south-koreas-jeju.
“MIGRATION, MIGRANTS, AND CONTESTED ETHNO-NATIONALISM IN KOREA.” Taylor & Francis, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14672710903119727?journalCode=rcra20.
Sang-hun, Choe. “South Korea Denies Refugee Status to Hundreds of Fleeing Yemenis.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Oct. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/10/17/world/asia/south-korea-yemeni-refugees.html.
“난민법은 죄가 없다… 법 운영상 정부의 이중성이 문제.” 한국일보, 5 Sept. 2018, www.hankookilbo.com/News/Read/201808291521018856.