Is South Korea shirking its responsibilities to refugees?

2008.09.16 14:57

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Is South Korea shirking its responsibilities to refugees?

It is the responsibility of countries to offer safe and humane treatment to asylum seekers driven out by conflict in their countries of origin.
Countries such as South Africa, the United States, Kenya and France recognized from 30,700 to 205,000 refugees in 2006 alone.

But Korea has accepted only a total of 76 refugees - ever.

Where are the refugees? Korea is a peninsula surrounded mainly by oceans, with one border shared with North Korea, where military tension with the South is still a threat. Therefore, diasporas through borders of neighboring countries have not been a common phenomenon on the Korean Peninsula; only people who can enter Korea by plane or ship are able to seek asylum. Nevertheless, there are thousands who do make it here successfully, only to be defeated by the system.

Even after the asylum seekers manage to enter Korea, they are faced with more obstacles once they enter the country.

The time and efforts required of the asylum seekers to be recognized as refugees by the Korean government are extreme. According to a survey conducted in 2004 by Korean NGOs, 73.1 percent of the interviewers - recognized refugees and applicants for refugee status - waited more than one year to be admitted as refugees, and 17.9 percent of them are still waiting for the decision after four to five years.

The time the Korean system requires for the refugee-recognition process can have detrimental effects on certain categories of people. When the National Human Rights Commission visited an immigration detention center to conduct a survey regarding the treatment of detainees in 2007, I met a young man from Ghana.

He had applied for refugee status in 2006 after being detained. Because being a refugee applicant was not a sufficient reason to be released from the immigration detention center - when one had applied for it after being detained - he was awaiting the decision under detention.

When I went to the same detention center to investigate a separate case in the spring of 2008, he was still there struggling to be granted refugee status. After two years in jail, he was finally accepted as a refugee and released from the detention center this June.

When an asylum seeker finally is accepted as a refugee by the government, his or her struggle is not even half over. The labors of daily life and integration have only begun. The major difficulties for refugees are a lack of access to settlement information, welfare protection and social understanding, among others.

The situation is even worse for people who are still struggling in the refugee-recognition process, or people under humanitarian status, who failed to be admitted as refugees but who are granted temporary stay because of the hostile situation in their home countries. I had a chance to learn about a family from Cote d`Ivoire with refugee status who had children of elementary school age. However, the parents were unable to send the children to school because the school told them that it was not ready for their children.

Presumably, society in general is not ready to embrace refugees and some or all categories of migrants. Here are some suggestions to address this issue:

To protect the human rights of asylum seekers, including refugees, and to enhance their integration into society, the government has to set up carefully structured systems and programs for newcomers.

Public education has to be redesigned to help not only the refugees but all migrants. The social security system, especially health care, should be extended to asylum seekers and people with humanitarian status.

The public should be educated about the situation of asylum seekers. A campaign to integrate people from other countries or different ethnic backgrounds into our society should be undertaken.

Most importantly, our concept that dealing with refugees is an option must be jettisoned. Protecting refugees and asylum seekers is not an option. It should not be considered charity.

Humane treatment of refugees is the responsibility of every country.

Susan Kim is an Investigator of the Migration & Human Rights Team at the National Human Rights Commission. Before working as an investigator from 2002-2005, she worked for the International Affairs Division at the Commission. She holds an M.A. in Area Studies from the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University and a B.A. in French from Paichai University. The opinions expressed here in no way reflect those of The Korea Herald. - Ed.

By Susan Kim


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