Controversy recently erupted over a bill aimed at guaranteeing undocumented immigrant children the right to receive education and medical treatment. Some Koreans raised objections to using taxpayers’ money to care for the children of those who are here illegally. In a further worrisome phenomenon, the dispute over the bill proposed by 10 liberal opposition lawmakers prompted an outpouring of hatred in cyberspace toward immigrants in the country.
Registered or not, all children should be protected and entitled to basic rights in a democratic and civilized society. Children do not choose their parents, let alone the broader conditions into which they are born. Most illegal immigrants here do low-paid, difficult jobs shunned by Korean workers. They also pay taxes in one form or another as indirect levies account for nearly half of all tax revenues in Korea.
These arguments, however, were simply ignored by those who opposed the bill and went further to complain of immigrant laborers depriving native citizens of dwindling job opportunities.
Hatred and violence against immigrant communities is often seen in modern societies as a common way of finding scapegoats under frustrating conditions. Though not as severe as it is in some Western countries, the continuous antipathy toward immigrants in Korean society may reflect Koreans’ growing frustration with an unsatisfactory present and anxiety over an uncertain future.
But in order to brighten their future ― or more realistically, to avoid making it gloomier ― Koreans should change their negative perceptions and attitudes toward immigrants.
A recent report by a local think tank reminds us again of the need to be more positive and active in accepting immigrants. The Korea Economic Research Institute warned in its report that the country’s potential growth rate ― an economy’s maximum capacity to grow without causing additional inflation ― would continue to decline over the coming decades, falling below 1 percent in 2050, due to a shrinking working-age population. The institute called for accepting more immigrants to offset the negative effects of a low birthrate and a fast-aging population.
According to its estimates, Korea needs to let in a total of 9.26 million immigrants by 2030 and 14.79 million by 2050 if it is to increase its potential growth rate by 1 additional percentage point.
The proportion of working-age people ― those between the ages of 15 and 64 ― in Korea is projected to decrease from a peak of 72.9 percent in 2016 to 56 percent in 2040 and 49.7 percent in 2060.
The government’s efforts to raise the birthrate have fallen far short of turning this alarming demographic trend around. Korea’s fertility rate ― the average number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime ― was down 0.11 from the previous year to a mere 1.187 last year, the lowest among major developed countries.
Thus, the country should welcome more immigrants to maintain and enhance its demographic vitality and growth momentum. Long-term foreign residents here now number nearly 1.4 million, accounting for 2.7 percent of the country’s population, far below comparable figures for other advanced nations.
It may be necessary to establish an immigration agency to effectively coordinate and implement related policies currently being handled by different government ministries. As experts note, it is certainly desirable to attract many young and high-skilled immigrants, who could contribute to enhancing the country’s competitiveness and help reduce welfare costs. In this regard, however, Koreans should ask themselves whether such young foreign talents would be eager to come to a country where about 20,000 undocumented immigrant children are denied the basic rights of proper education and medical treatment.