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Left out: Vaccinated foreigners in S. Korea face ‘discrimination,’ restrictions

Expats’ overseas vaccine records not recognized here

Passengers from the United States arrive at Incheon Airport on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Passengers from the United States arrive at Incheon Airport on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Daniel, a 33-year old Canadian working as a university professor in Seoul, had no other option but to spend 10 days alone at home in July after returning from a three-month trip to Canada.

“I went to Canada in April to attend my grandmother’s funeral and spent much time with relatives and friends, while receiving both shots of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine there. The thing is, when I was getting ready to return to Korea, I was told by the Korean Embassy in Toronto that I wasn’t eligible for the quarantine exemption upon my arrival in Korea, which was scheduled for mid-July,” said the professor who wished to be identified only by a pseudonym.

Without qualifying for the exemption, Daniel’s vaccination record is also not recognized by Korean health authorities, barring him from entering certain venues. 

Daniel’s predicament highlights the plight of some foreign workers here who were vaccinated overseas, but are not exempted from mandatory quarantine when reentering Korea from another country. 

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Central Disaster Management Headquarters, only Koreans and foreigners who were fully vaccinated in Korea can avoid quarantine as part of the government’s incentive scheme to raise the inoculation rate. 

As for people who got vaccinated overseas, only those visiting Korea for humanitarian reasons like attending funerals of immediate family, visiting family residing in Korea and urgent temporary business purposes, can be issued quarantine exemption certificates, government officials said. This applies to both Koreans and non-Korean nationals. 

As Koreans are more likely to have family here, it is mostly foreign residents who face inconveniences caused by the self-isolation rule, including a delayed return to work.

“I’ve worked as an educator in Korea for more than seven years. There are many foreign nationals who have regular jobs here. For us, occupation is a humanitarian reason for the quarantine exemption,” Daniel said.

Not eligible for vaccine pass 

The inconvenience doesn’t end with the 10-day quarantine. 

For those inoculated overseas, a quarantine exemption certificate is required to apply for the government’s “vaccine pass system,” which started on Nov. 1.

People like Daniel, who was not granted the exemption certificate, cannot register their foreign vaccination records on the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s vaccination verification mobile app, COOV, or other authorized digital platforms. 

The digitized vaccine passport allows fully vaccinated individuals access to multiuse facilities and places that are deemed at high risk of virus infections. This means foreigners whose inoculations aren’t accepted face restrictions in gyms, movie theaters and many other public places.

What started off as a strict requirement for quarantine exemption is now making the lives of many expats difficult, said a British woman who works and resides in Korea. 

“Despite being fully vaccinated overseas, foreign residents in Korean usually do not qualify for the government’s quarantine exemption scheme. This means many are stuck here, unable to visit family, as their vacation days are often less than the required quarantine period,” she said, requesting anonymity. 

Non-Korean nationals were further frustrated when the health authority in October began allowing Korean nationals who were vaccinated overseas to register their vaccination records without submitting their quarantine exemption certificates. 

Room for discrimination 

While fully vaccinated non-Korean nationals have to endure self-isolation upon reentry and are left out of the vaccine pass system, despite residing and working here, Koreans with foreign nationalities are immune from this trouble. They are able to go sightseeing simply because they have immediate family living in the country, which has raised concerns over administrative discrimination against foreigners.

Ato Lee, a Canadian citizen who visited Korea in mid-October, was able to bypass the quarantine requirement because she has family in Korea. 

“I was required to take COVID-19 PCR tests twice during a three-week stay in Korea. Except for one or two days waiting for COVID-19 test results, I didn’t have to go into self-isolation,” said the 28-year-old. 

Both Lee and Daniel received their vaccine shots in Canada.

Foreign ambassadors in Korea have called on Korean authorities to recognize proof of overseas inoculations.

“It is unfortunate that this distinction between Korean and non-Korean residents is made. It is making the life of non-Korean residents, even though they are fully vaccinated, unnecessarily complicated,” EU Ambassador to South Korea Maria Castillo-Fernandez told The Korea Herald. 

“There are no medical or other reasons for this distinction, which we therefore consider of a discriminatory nature,” she said, adding that the EU mission has officially raised the issue with the government and so have some other embassies. 

Last week, British Ambassador to South Korea Simon Smith voiced criticism in a video posted on the UK Embassy in Seoul’s Twitter account.

“Under the current system, non-Korean nationals who have been vaccinated overseas cannot be registered as vaccinated. This places the foreign nationals in a different position from Korean nationals vaccinated overseas who are able to have their status recognized under the vaccine pass system,” Smith said. 

In response to a media inquiry from The Korea Herald, an official at the KDCA only repeated the stated criteria for a quarantine exemption and said that once foreigners who were vaccinated overseas obtain the exemption certificate, they can register their vaccination record with the Korean system. 

“However, those entering Korea without the quarantine exemption certificate do not qualify for the registration since it is difficult for the health authorities here to verify the authenticity of vaccination certificates issued overseas due to lack of internal standards,” the official said. 

To this, the British woman who works in Korea quipped: “They have no problem verifying overseas vaccination records when held by Korean nationals. This policy is clearly discriminatory.”

The Foreign Ministry, in response to The Korea Herald’s earlier report on the issue, also stressed that people who are vaccinated overseas, regardless of their nationality, can register their vaccine record, once they obtain the quarantine exemption letter.

The KDCA official added that the government is aware of the problem and has plans to recognize overseas vaccination records. The official did not elaborate further.

The EU ambassador also told The Korea Herald that Seoul was in talks with the bloc about recognizing the EU Digital COVID Certificate, a QR code-based proof of vaccination that allows people to move freely within the EU without needing to self-isolate or undergo COVID-19 testing.

By Choi Jae-hee (cjh@heraldcorp.com)
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