The Korea Herald


[Andrew Wolman] Korea’s denial of refugee status to Yemeni asylum seekers

By Korea Herald

Published : Oct. 23, 2018 - 17:15

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The Korean Ministry of Justice’s recent decision to deny refugee status to around 550 Yemeni asylum seekers -- granting most of them “humanitarian protection” instead -- represents a predictable ending point for one of the country’s least laudable episodes of recent years. In short, the Korean Immigration Service had earlier this year included Yemen on the list of countries whose nationals could travel to the resort island of Jeju without a visa. Perhaps unsurprisingly (at least in retrospect), this led to hundreds of Yemeni nationals flying to Jeju during the first few months of 2018, less for the black sand beaches and fresh abalone, and more for a chance to escape the relentless Saudi bombardment, civil war and harsh poverty gripping their nation.

While some of the Yemenis were welcomed and provided with aid by the local population, the overall reaction was strongly antagonistic, with both anti-foreigner and Islamophobic sentiment running high. A petition with 714,000 signatures from July 2018 requested that President Moon Jae-In deny asylum to the “fake refugees” and send them home. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Seoul and on Jeju Island, with opposition even from certain women’s rights organizations, playing off hoary stereotypes of the refugees as sexual threats, stereotypes that were fueled by baseless social media rumors. The Korean government quickly removed Yemen from the visa-free list, but the question remained of what to do with the Yemenis already on the island. While President Moon denied the Yemenis permission to travel from Jeju Island to mainland Korea, the ultimate decision on their fates was postponed for months, until the government’s recent pronouncement.

In fact, the government’s decision to deny the Yemenis’ refugee status should come as no great surprise. Refugees are rare in Korea, where many still place great value in a society that, despite recent increases in immigration, is perceived as being relatively homogeneous. While President Moon is a former human rights lawyer with a reputation for supporting the underdog, nobody was expecting a Merkel moment. The chosen solution -- granting humanitarian protection rather than refugee status -- is more or less the standard East Asian response to asylum seekers from war zones. Korea and Japan, for example, have granted refugee status to vanishingly few Syrians or Iraqis, preferring to give “humanitarian status” to asylum seekers from each country. This is despite the fact that Korea and Japan have both ratified the Refugee Convention and incorporated it into domestic law.

From a legal standpoint, there are four main problems with the Korean response. The first is that even if one accepts that refugee status need only be granted to those fleeing persecution -- as opposed to war or poverty -- it seems extraordinarily unlikely that none of the Yemenis are deserving. There is little political freedom in Yemen, and persecution based on religion, social group and sexual orientation are all real problems. Genuine individual determinations of refugee status are no doubt a burden, but in this case the burden could easily have been borne by a wealthy Korean state.

Second, the response creates discriminatory burdens on the Yemeni humanitarian protection holders, who will lack the automatic right to work and other benefits that similarly placed refugees enjoy, such as the right to family reunification.

Third, the Yemeni humanitarian protection holders will enjoy a discretionary form of asylum that provides no security and can be withdrawn at any time. This extreme lack of security evidently will make it difficult for them to find work and housing, likely forcing them even further on to the margins of society.

Finally, while most of the Yemenis have been granted humanitarian protection, even this was denied to 34 asylum seekers, and a total of 85 others have not yet had their cases determined. Sending any of this group back to Yemen -- site of what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis -- would be a truly shameful black mark for Korea’s “progressive” leaders.

While there are many losers in the government’s decision to deny refugee status to the Yemenis, one potential winner has already emerged -- Korea’s far-left Justice Party, which has to date been the only outspoken political voice in favor of granting refugee status to the Yemenis. The Justice Party has been making strides toward greater political relevance in recent months, due in part to a general approval of North-South rapprochement, which has always been a major policy goal for the party. By speaking out in favor of the Yemenis -- and by extension for multiculturalism and human rights -- the Justice Party is staking out a mainstream progressive policy position which may help it evolve into a legitimate political player, at least among a younger generation of Koreans that sees immigration as a political and economic necessity rather than a burden to avoid.

Andrew Wolman
Andrew Wolman is a lecturer at City Law School at City, University of London. -- Ed.