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[Exclusive] Expats sidelined in Seoul’s mask-rationing

Activists call for permission to buy masks with passports

An illegal immigrant visits an immigration office in Seoul to voluntarily report herself on March 6. (Yonhap)
An illegal immigrant visits an immigration office in Seoul to voluntarily report herself on March 6. (Yonhap)
Hundreds of thousands of foreign residents in South Korea have been sidelined in the government’s face mask-rationing measure, prompting activists to call for improving the system.

Korea kicked off a distribution system on Monday after the growing shortage of face masks caused by the coronavirus infection spread.

The government has been supplying masks to citizens, allowing each person to buy two masks at government-designated pharmacies, post offices and NongHyup Hanaro Mart stores every week. An identification proof must be presented for purchase.

While foreigners are also eligible to buy masks, the government has limited purchases to subscribers of the national health insurance, making nearly half of the foreigners unable to access the supplied masks. There are over 2 million foreign nationals living in Korea, including those who have overstayed their visas, but only around 1.25 million are subscribed to the public health insurance, according to government data.

“The situation is especially bad for social minorities. Asylum-seekers, unregistered immigrants and foreign workers in rural areas -- where they cannot, or do not subscribe to health insurance -- have fallen in the holes,” Kim Young-ah, executive director of Migration to Asia Peace, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees here -- told The Korea Herald. “Some of these people have told me that they are continuously reusing disposable masks.”

According to Kim, the situation is worsened by the fact that most government-run migrant support centers have not been operating properly since late February due to fears of the virus infection within the locations where people transit on a daily basis.

“We’re currently coping entirely with a small number of masks that we purchased ourselves or have been sponsored by organizations or individuals, and delivering them to people short of masks,” Kim added.

Some foreign residents are also unqualified to subscribe to the health insurance if they have been in Korea for less than six months. This includes students who have come to study and travelers staying for short periods.

Even among those who subscribe to the health insurance, many are not able to buy masks through the provided channels.

“A majority of the foreign laborers usually live alone and it’s not easy for them to visit pharmacies close by during their working hours. Even after work, the locations are mostly closed or the masks are sold-out,” said Jung Yong-sup, general secretary of Migrant Workers Movement Supporters Group.

“It would be better if the government allows foreigners to buy masks with their passports, or else, supply masks to some 200 local migrant support centers around the nation to sell to foreigners in the blind spot of the system,” Jung said.

Meanwhile, the Joint Committee of Migrants in Korea on Thursday filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission, requesting the government to allow foreigners without health insurance to purchase face masks.

“We’re not asking for free masks. Immigrants should be given the right to buy publicly-supplied masks,” the committee said.

Starting this week, people are able to buy two masks every week depending on the last digit of their birth year. While those born in the years ending with one or six can buy on Monday, those people born in years ending two and seven can buy on Tuesday -- three and eight on Wednesday, four and nine on Thursday, five and zero on Friday. Anyone who has not bought the rationed amount on weekdays can make purchases over the weekends.

By Choi Ji-won (
Korea Herald Youtube