SEOUL, South Korea—The sudden surge of Yemeni asylum-seekers to South Korea’s Jeju island isn’t something the government was ready to deal with.
On Oct. 17, South Korea’s Ministry of Justice announced that it’s granting temporary stay permits to most of the more than 500 asylum-seekers, which allows them to leave the island, but denied them refugee status. More than 350 were granted humanitarian stay permits, while some were rejected due to criminal records or for being judged as economic migrants. Some cases are still under review.
“I don’t have any idea what I will do next,” said a 31-year-old asylum-seeker, who asked to remain anonymous. “I’m puzzled.”
Earlier this year, the South Korean government tightened a visa system that had encouraged tourism to the resort island, striking Yemen and some other countries from the list of nations whose citizens could get a 30-day stay without a visa.
The Yemenis with permits are allowed to stay for a year, and the visa can be extended, depending on the asylum-seeker’s security situation at home and the applicant’s conduct in South Korea. They aren’t allowed to bring their families to South Korea.
NANCEN, a local NGO supporting refugees, said the permits allow employment but don’t allow social welfare benefits including pensions, worker’s compensation, health care, and employment insurance benefits.
Like most other of the Yemenis, the asylum-seeker who spoke to The Epoch Times came to South Korea via Malaysia. Before that, he stayed in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia for a time after leaving his war-torn country.
Although disappointed that he wasn’t granted refugee status, he said the Korean government is “still better” than the Yemeni government.
He said he’s staying in a flat provided by a local Buddhist community, while a Catholic church on the island is providing accommodation for another 200 asylum seekers on the island.
The Yemeni refugee applicants who were granted humanitarian stay permits had no serious criminal records such as terrorism-related offenses, according to the Korean government. Still, in ethnically homogenous South Korea, the arrival of the asylum seekers stands as a source of controversy.
One of the main issues fueling the controversy is that most of the asylum-seekers are young men. Of the more than 500 Yemenis who came to the island, only about 40 of them are women.
For some, this demographic stands in contrast to the image they have of claimants leaving a war-torn country, expecting refugees to be women, children, and the elderly. That has some locals calling the asylum-seekers “fake refugees.”
Other reports about the asylum-seekers also add to the controversy, including the claim that some were offered work months ago in such areas as fishing, but quit after complaining the work was too hard. The Epoch Times couldn’t verify the validity of such claims.
“They cannot do the 3D (i.e., difficult, dirty, and dangerous) jobs. … What refugees are they? They are illegal aliens aimed at money,” a local netizen said in a post, typical of some of the sentiments expressed against the Yemenis.
Before leaving Yemen, the asylum-seeker who spoke to The Epoch Times said he ran a shop that sold computers and electronic accessories. In South Korea, he said he is willing to do any job to survive.
The National Action for Korean (NAK) is one of the organizations that has been requesting immediate expulsion of the asylum-seekers, holding more than 20 protests. The NAK also requested an end to the refugee law, arguing that the law is being misused by illegal aliens to extend their stay in the country.
One of the main reasons that some oppose granting refugee status to asylum-seekers is what they say were Europe’s troubles after accepting refugees in great numbers.
“Many European countries are suffering from troubles caused by the refugees who have been coming in increasing numbers, such as crimes and terror,” said Peter Young-yeel Ko, a lawyer who is opposed to asylum-seekers remaining in South Korea.
Ko says that with the existing refugee legislation, the government can’t effectively manage cases where foreigners come into the country and apply for refugee status. He says “fake refugees” can remain in the country legally, and can’t be expelled until their application has been processed.
Others think the government should grant refugee status to the asylum-seekers because the Yemenis face a war back home.