Published : 2013-10-30 19:14
Updated : 2013-10-30 19:14
It took more than two decades for Korea to enact a relevant domestic law after it joined the U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees in 1992. The law, which came into force in July, should mean that more asylum seekers are allowed to settle here and that their treatment is improved. Under this act, the Justice Ministry has set up a new division in charge of refugee affairs, deploying officials in eight places, including Incheon International Airport, to examine applications for asylum.
It cannot be said that Korea has been active in accepting refugees. Since 1994, a total of 5,843 foreign people, most of them from South Asian and African nations, have applied for asylum here, but only 340 of the applications were approved. In addition, 176 people were allowed to stay in the country on humanitarian grounds. The approval rate of less than 10 percent is far below the world average of about 30 percent.
Seoul’s reluctance may be partly attributed to its concerns that refugee status could be used as a means for illegal immigrants to gain residence. With the annual number of asylum applications having exceeded 1,000 in recent years, Korea needs to be more positive and accommodative toward accepting refugees. Its attitude toward the matter should correspond to the status of a country seeking to assume more responsible roles on the global stage based on its growing economic and cultural power.
In this sense, the refugee law should have been enacted earlier, though it is better late than never. But institutional improvement alone cannot guarantee substantial results.
Officials handling asylum applications should be educated to have adequate understanding and knowledge of the oppressive situations in the escapees’ home countries. What is most needed is probably a change in the Korean public’s perception of refugees.
It is regretful ― and maybe even shameful ― that a refugee camp built on an island off the western coast has failed to open its doors for months in the face of resistance from residents, who are known to be worried that it would hamper the security and development of their village.
This concern is exaggerated or ungrounded. Refugees will be housed in the facility after undergoing a strict screening process. Asylum seekers, particularly those with political or conscientious reasons, are not just people in need, but also have the courage to say no in accordance with their beliefs. A society accommodating refugees wholeheartedly is also a better place for its citizens to live in. The place where the refugee center is located will likely be symbolic of the country’s endeavor to be faithful to humanitarian causes.
There may be a gap between the ideal and the reality. In the issue of opening up the refugee camp, the gap can and should be bridged in a wise manner that would ease residents’ concerns and hopefully give them pride in fulfilling their obligation as members of the global village. For its part, the government needs to step up efforts to dissolve the resistance through a reasonable persuasion coupled with some complementary measures if necessary.