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Afghans in Korea call for support as public split on refugee issue

Politicians cautious, netizens oppose, civic groups advocate

Afghans in Korea protest in front of the Foreign Ministry in Jongno-gu, Seoul on Monday, urging the rescue of their families in Afghanistan. (Yonhap)
Afghans in Korea protest in front of the Foreign Ministry in Jongno-gu, Seoul on Monday, urging the rescue of their families in Afghanistan. (Yonhap)
About 30 families representing Afghans who have worked for the Korean government in the war-torn country called for support from authorities in front of the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on Monday.

“We are here to appeal to the Korean government to save our family because our families in Afghanistan are on the verge of being killed by the Taliban for cooperating with Korea,” one of the Afghan protesters told reporters.

The protesters fear the fate of their Afghan relatives who have cooperated with the Korean government, companies, NGOs, and churches in Afghanistan. The press conference was not hosted by a specific group, and Afghans from across Korea gathered to voice their concerns.

“The majority of the participants at today’s press conference are Hazaras, persecuted by the majority of Afghanistan’s Pashtuns,” said Lee Ho-taek, head of refugee civic group pNan. Hazaras are an ethnic and religious minority who have long been targeted and persecuted by the Taliban.

“The biggest concerns are those who helped build a US military base in Afghanistan, as well as military-related cooperators, converts, church cooperators and women. We need help from the Korean government.”

While Monday’s protest has underscored the sense of urgency the Afghan community in Korea feels, the issue on whether to accept Afghan refugees has become a hot potato among politicians and the broader public.

The contentious issue comes as reports emerged that the US is considering taking in Afghan refugees at US bases overseas, including South Korea.

Following the foreign news reports, Rep. Song Young-gil, head of the ruling Democratic Party, said Sunday that the issue has yet to be discussed and needs further examination.

But he agreed in principle that Afghans who supported Koreans should be brought here.

“About 400 locals have joined the government’s reconstruction project in Afghanistan. Since we have become an advanced country, shouldn’t we take such responsibility?”

The nation’s main opposition People Power Party said Afghans should only be “temporarily accepted.”

“We need to cooperate closely with the US in the framework of the Korea-US alliance and consider positively from a humanitarian perspective,” said Heo Eun-ah, a senior spokesperson for the People Power Party. “Giving permission to stay in Korea, not temporary acceptance, should be carefully determined.”

The progressive Justice Party said some refugees should be allowed to seek asylum.

Rep. Jang Hye-young of Justice Party said, “At least families with pregnant women and children should be accepted,” she said in a post on Facebook.

Many civic groups have been pushing for authorities to accept Afghan refugees.

Recently, 106 civil society organizations, including the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, held a press conference in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday.

“The Korean government should figure out the situation of local reconstruction teams in Afghanistan and their families and come up with safety measures,” the groups said in a joint statement.

On online communities, opposing voices were prominent.

“I know their culture is hard to mix with us, but I think we became a country that can accept a little bit of refugees and have mercy,” one anonymous commenter wrote. Another said, “We should help Afghans who help Koreans.”

Radical and negative comments also received backing online.

“We should never accept Islam,” read one comment. Another wrote, “Democracy and Islam cannot coexist,” and “Look at what Europe is now after accepting Islam. They see terror now.” Such comments received more than hundreds of “likes” each.

According to a survey of 1,016 adult men and women in Korea conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in December last year, 53 percent of the public opposed accepting refugees, against 33 percent who were in favor. The reasons for the opposition were economic burdens (64 percent) and concerns about social problems such as crime (57 percent).

Koreans are reminded of a similar issue that happened earlier from 2016 to 2018. During that period, more than 500 Yemenis sought asylum on Jeju Island to avoid civil war in their home country. Several protests opposing granting them refugee statuses broke out and more than 700,000 people signed a petition against their acceptance on the Cheong Wa Dae website. Of the group, only two were recognized as refugees while about 400 were given humanitarian residence permits.

From 2000 to 2017, Korea’s recognition rate of refugees was 3.5 percent, ranking 35th among 37 member countries of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation.

Ministry of Justice figures show that of 71,936 applicants, 1,101 were recognized as refugees, with 2,370 more being granted humanitarian residence permits.



By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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