“I have found incidents and problems (of racism and xenophobia in South Korea) that are serious enough to be brought to attention,” said Mutuma Ruteere, U.N. special rapporteur on racism, in a press conference in Seoul on Monday.
He made these comments on the last day of a weeklong visit to Korea to examine the racial discrimination situation here. Ruteere is to file his report on racism in Korea to the U.N. Human Rights Council next year.
The U.N. rapporteur said the state of migrant workers in the agriculture industry requires “serious attention” from the South Korean authorities.
Many of the workers face extremely poor working conditions, especially in the greenhouses in the winters and summers, as well as wage inequality, he said.
“I have been informed that (South Korean) government has introduced amendments to the employment permit system which now make it harder for foreign workers to change employment and which in some cases require them to have left the country in order to be paid their severance settlement after finishing their employment contract in Korea,” he said.
He also said that South Korea’s EPS system, which was launched in 2007 to attract more foreign workers to the country, makes it impossible for those under the scheme to be granted permanent or long-term residency, as the EPS is limited to a maximum of 4 years and 10 months.
In Busan, he spoke to foreign fishermen who face discrimination in wages ― they are often assigned the “most difficult tasks and get paid less than their Korean counterparts”― as well as racist verbal and physical abuse by the Korean ship owners.
Ruteere also addressed the discriminatory use of the term “multicultural families” among South Koreans. The concept of such families, he said, were often used in the Korean media to convey negative connotations of foreign workers and migrant wives from Southeast Asia.
“Similarly, one must note that the policy of multicultural families is the vast majority of cases applied only to foreign women who marry a Korean man and not vice versa. The definition of these marriages also excludes two migrant workers from a non-Korean background,” he said.
The U.N. expert also spoke of existing xenophobic groups in South Korea, who claim that the nation’s policies on multiculturalism discriminate against Koreans, as they are excluded from social benefits that immigrants receive. Ruteere concluded that “no such discrimination” exists against Koreans.
“It is however important for the (South Korean) government to dispel these myths and clarify the situation in order to prevent the proliferation of racist and xenophobic movements,” he said.
As of the beginning of this year, there are more than 1.57 million people with foreign citizenship in Korea, most of them from Asia, including foreign brides and international students. That accounts for more than 3 percent of the country’s population.
“My understanding of multiculturalism is to strengthen intercultural understanding. It is not a one-way street, but a two-way street,” Ruteere said when asked about Korea’s multicultural polices that some argue as culturally assimilating. “Koreans have a lot to learn from their migrants, and the culture of their migrants. True multiculturalism means learning from both sides.”
To improve the situation of racism in the country, Ruteere stressed the importance of education on racism and xenophobia, while suggesting the enactment of a comprehensive anti-discrimination act. “(It is also important) to ensure that the media is sensitive of the responsibility to avoid racist and xenophobic stereotypes and that these are properly addressed and perpetrators punished where appropriate.”
Ruteere, who arrived in Korea on Sept. 29, visited Seoul, Sejong, Busan, Changwon, and Ansan to monitor the situation of racial discrimination in the country. He met with government officials, U.N. agencies present in the country, NGOs, asylum seekers and migrant workers during the visit, among others.
In spite of his requests, however, the U.N. rapporteur said he was not given a chance to speak to any of the country’s ministers.
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)