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Ministry mulls independent body for refugee appeals

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Published : 2017-04-20 16:11
Updated : 2017-04-20 18:03

The Justice Ministry is considering establishing an independent body to screen refugee applications as the number of asylum seekers in the country grows, it said Wednesday.

“We have commissioned a study for an entity specializing in deliberating on appeals of those rejected a refugee status,” an official from the ministry told The Korea Herald.

“The research is not yet done, so it is difficult to discuss when it will be established and what form it will take,” the official said.

The Ministry of Justice (Yonhap)

Although South Korea was the first Asian country to enact the Refugee Act in 2013, it has often faced criticism for having a tough refuge policy. Critics accuse the immigration office for being biased against asylum seekers and lacking expertise and transparency.

The Seoul government, however, cite difficulties in processing the rising number of refugee applications, while stressing the need to screen out economic migrants seeking asylum only to prolong their stay in the country.

South Korea has seen a 17-fold increase in the number of asylum seekers over the past six years.

In the face of tens of millions of people fleeing violence and war across the world, the number of those applying for refugee status here went from 423 in 2010 to 7,542 last year, according to the ministry.

Currently, the Justice Ministry screens asylum seekers’ applications and decides whether to grant them refugee status. An applicant can fight the ministry’s refusal, by appealing to a consultation body under the ministry, composed of government officials. One can then bring the case to a local court, with legal proceedings taking up to three years.

As over 60 percent of refused applicants appeal, the ministry and related authorities have been complaining of personnel and budget shortages to handle the workload.

Establishment of an independent refuge affairs institution has been a demand by experts and activists.

“We have called for an establishment of an independent body, which is specialized in screening asylum applications and has legally binding power,” said Lee Ho-taeg, a head of refugee advocacy group pNan.

He stressed the envisioned unit should be independent and have an expertise to make fair yet speedy judgments.

“The local administrative court make rulings on refugee applications, but judges are not equipped with knowledge about different regions and religions -- the basis to thoroughly review refugee applications,” he said.

But setting up an independent body for refugee screening cannot solve all the problems, a refugee rights lawyer said.

“Lack of budget and personnel have been fundamental problems in running the refugee system in the country,” said Hwang Pill-kyu from the Gonggam Human Rights Law Foundation.

According to data from the Justice Ministry, the number of officials at nine immigration offices across the country was 22 to handle 5,711 cases in 2015, meaning one immigration officer taking care of 0.71 cases a day on average.

“The Justice Ministry should first analyze how much more budget and personnel they need and devise a plan to improve fairness and transparency in running the refugee system,” he said.

“It should make sure that authorities spend enough time to take into account individual asylum seeker’s situation and asylum seekers are fairly treated in the process.”

Under the Refugee Act, South Korea offers selected applicants monthly living subsidies and state-run housing for the first six months upon their application. But government statistics showed that only 8.6 percent of the applicants -- 650 out of 7,542 people -- received living expenses last year.

All of the asylum seekers are granted a G-1 visa and can get a job, six months after they submitted their applications, though language barriers and negative the perception of asylum seekers lower their chances of actually finding work.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)