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World reeling from Syria refugee crisis  

Seoul urged to boost aid; Syria may have lessons for peninsula

With risks and challenges faced by refugees emerging as one of the greatest global issues today, the status and conditions of asylum seekers in South Korea have also been highlighted. The Korea Herald is publishing a series of articles shedding light on refugees in Korea, their hardships, the systematic fallout, the country’s own history and ways to go forward. The following is the eighth installment. ― Ed.

Then 3 years old, Aylan Kurdi became a totem of the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East last September, after being found drowned and washed up on a beach while trying to reach Greece through the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, fleeing his conflict-stricken homeland. The portrait of his tiny lifeless body being swooped up by the somber-faced coast guard instantly fueled anger across social media.

European and North American leaders scrambled to relay pledges to take more refugees and work for a resolution to end the plight of the Syrian people.

Five months later, however, the world is still grappling with the refugee crisis. Before long, many European nations sought to curb the quota and fortify their borders, some involving razor-wire fencing, in the face of an overwhelming influx of asylum seekers and consequent internal and continent-wide strife.

A glimmer of hope is growing after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday a provisional cease-fire settlement has been reached and it could take effect in the next few days. The U.S., Russia and other world powers agreed Feb. 12 on a deal calling for the halt of hostilities within a week, the delivery of aid to besieged areas of Syria and a return to peace talks in Geneva. 

A Syrian family seeking refuge in South Korea waits for authorities to begin the process at Incheon International Airport on Nov. 18, 2015. According to the National Intelligence Service, of the 200 Syrian asylum seekers who arrived in Korea, 135 have been recognized with “humanitarian status,” while 65 are still waiting inside the airport as of the end of last year. (Yonhap)
A Syrian family seeking refuge in South Korea waits for authorities to begin the process at Incheon International Airport on Nov. 18, 2015. According to the National Intelligence Service, of the 200 Syrian asylum seekers who arrived in Korea, 135 have been recognized with “humanitarian status,” while 65 are still waiting inside the airport as of the end of last year. (Yonhap)

South Korea, for its part, has provided a total of $23.45 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria, in addition to this year’s $12 million commitment unveiled early this year. About 13.5 million people are in urgent need for aid inside the war-ravaged country alone, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry says, more than half of them are children.

As of last November, at least 200 Syrian refugees have flown to South Korea. Of them, 135 were granted “humanitarian” status, and the remaining 65 are still at the airport “under strict monitoring” by the National Intelligence Service. Other data provided by civic groups put the number of Syrian refugee applicants at more than 500 last year alone.

Many activists criticize what they see as an overly strict screening process, which lands more applicants in the humanitarian position rather than with the full “refugee” status that ensures job, medical, educational, child care and other state support.

The “humanitarian stayers,” in contrast, are only allowed to reside and work here, with little social protection, and are required to undergo screening every year to renew their status. Most of them live in a resettlement center in a remote part of Incheon, which makes it even harder for them to find decent employment.

The trend inevitably undercuts South Korea’s prestige as a member of the 1951 Refugee Convention and a nation that enacted Asia’s first standalone refugee act in July 2013, critics say.

Another emerging factor is rising concerns over a possible terror attack by Islamic fundamentalists such as those linked with the Islamic State group, especially in the wake of recent incidents in Paris, Istanbul, Jakarta and elsewhere.

The Park Geun-hye administration is pushing for counterterrorism bills, which include steps to preclude physical and cyberterrorist acts and trail the suspected perpetrators’ money and network. But they have never been put to a floor vote due to resistance from the opposition camp on concerns that they will make way for the NIS to spy on civilians and engage political maneuvering in particular during election seasons.

The spy agency also reported 48 foreign nationals have since 2010 been deported for their supposed ties with international terror organizations or posing potential terror threats themselves. Among them, an Indonesian who had worked at a factory complex in Daegu for years joined the IS group after leaving the country, later dying in an operation.

Last August, the IS named South Korea a member of the U.S.-led “crusader coalition,” alongside Japan, Taiwan and many other nations. Seoul notched up its four-tier alert level from “concern” to the second-highest of “caution” and tightened security at major facilities in the aftermath of the deadly attacks on Paris two months later.

NIS director Lee Byung-ho called during the parliamentary session for “full readiness for the possibilities for an establishment of terrorism infrastructure in the form of a ‘lone wolf.’”

“The perceived rigidity surrounding agencies like the Justice Ministry partly probably reflects the current atmosphere,” Park Mi-hyung, head of the International Organization for Migration’s Seoul office, told The Korea Herald.

“It’s a tremendous irony to think of and treat the refugees as potential terrorists at a time when they are running away from the real terrorists. The application procedure itself is a huge challenge for them, on top of the arduous journey from their home.”

Jang Ji-hyang, director of the Middle East and North Africa Center at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, also says that the asylum seekers would pose little, if any, threats here.

“Even though large numbers of Syrian refugees would be settled here, it’s unlikely to lead to an active Muslim community highlighting their identity in a nation with a strong cultural solidarity like Korea,” she says.

“It’s more probable that the discontent harbored by Muslim workers or those from underprivileged multicultural families could turn into extreme violence in the face of the tyranny of vicious, high-handed employers.”

While scaling up its financial contributions and support for overseas refugee camps, Seoul should let in and embrace more Syrian asylum seekers as one of the world’s most affluent democracies, experts say.

The U.N. has requested its members provide an additional $7.75 billion in humanitarian aid this year for Syria and its neighboring countries. In December, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs launched its largest-ever life-saving appeal worth $20.1 billion for 2016, citing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Yemen as top drivers of humanitarian needs.

Syria’s five-year civil war has so far killed at least 250,000 people. Its population dwindled to 16.6 million last year from 22.85 million in 2013, U.N. figures show.

The U.N. Refugee Agency places “total persons of concern” at more than 4.7 million, including some 4 million registered Syrians in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and some North African countries. They are aside from another 1 million unregistered and 7 million internally displaced people -- meaning more than half of the population has been forced to move.

“South Korea should diversify ways to take part in the global drive and share more of the burdens. And in terms of resettlement, it’s vital to support the refugees for their social integration,” Jun Hae-won, a professor in European and African studies at the Korean National Diplomatic Academy, says in her report released at the end of last month.

“Bracing for a protraction of the current refugee crisis, the government needs to pursue further cooperation with Europe on the humanitarian diplomacy front and to expand bilateral partnerships, while considering joining the EU-level initiative with a comprehensive, mid- and long-term approach that includes not only refugee aid but also reconstruction efforts.”

The view is echoed by Jang from Asan, who also calls for Seoul to take a more “forward-looking” stance and boost humanitarian contributions for its long-term national interests.

With the perennial standoff with North Korea, the debacle in the Middle East and Europe could offer lessons should any sudden, popular uprising and eventual civil war take place across the border, however unlikely it may seem for now, she says.

“South Korea should practice global norms on the world stage, looking beyond economic interests,” Jang says.

“It is a quite costly policy, but to push the North and resolve the peninsular issues, the international community’s cooperation is pivotal. And Seoul would be able to press Beijing only with the support of global opinion and moral authority.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (

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