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Asylum seekers struggle for refugee status in Korea

With risks and challenges faced by refugees across the world having become one of the greatest global issues of today, the status and conditions of the asylum seekers in South Korea have also been highlighted. The Korea Herald will publish a series of articles shedding light on refugees in Korea, their hardships, the systematic fallout, the country’s own history and ways to go forward. The following is the first installment. – Ed.

The afternoon was sunny and peaceful, as the crisp wind signaled the coming autumn in South Korea. But the story told by CH Govera, a 30-something man from Ethiopia, in an interview with The Korea Herald at a cafe in Seoul, was worlds away from the tranquility of the day.

“I could have been stopped at the airport if it wasn’t so early at 5 a.m. in the morning,” said Govera, choking up with emotion. “I managed to sneak out of the country and I burst into tears when I boarded the plane.”

Govera, who was granted refugee status last month after several attempts over the past seven years, had taken a lead in establishing the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy back home, also known as Kinijit, ahead of the 2005 election to stand up to the government that had ruled his country for 25 years.

“The opposition bloc saw the biggest-ever gains, but the government wouldn’t leave,” Govera said of the election, which triggered chaos that killed nearly 200 people in the postelection violence.

“I was soon arrested, jailed and tortured until officials from Red Cross and the United Nations made a visit to my prison,” he said.

While living in fear that he might be persecuted, Govera grabbed a rare chance to come to Korea for missionary training in 2008.

“I didn’t want to leave as I was only demanding my political rights. But I had to get out of my country to survive,” he said. “I had no luggage, I didn’t tell anyone that I was leaving.”

Like many other asylum seekers in Korea, his first choice of destination was not Korea.

“My first choice was England or Germany, but I just had to seize any chance to leave the country.”

Govera explained that Ethiopians would have to pay brokers a commission fee of $2,000 to $4,000 to secure a legitimate visa to enter Korea. The costs depend on the popularity of the destination, with the visa for the U.S. hovering around $200,000.

After twists and turns, Govera was able to apply for asylum, but it took seven grueling years to finally be granted refugee status. “Now, I feel like I am born again.”

Syrian refugees participate in a rally calling for the Korean government’s help in front of the National Human Rights Commission in downtown Seoul on Sept. 13. (Yonhap)
Syrian refugees participate in a rally calling for the Korean government’s help in front of the National Human Rights Commission in downtown Seoul on Sept. 13. (Yonhap)

Govera is one of the 522 refugees as of July who have earned the status in Korea since the country began to accept refugees in 1994. 

Korea joined the U.N. Refugee Convention in 1992 and became the first Asian country to enforce the Refugee Act in 2013 to provide international refugees with social protection and residence.

The number of those seeking asylum in Korea has surged since the law took effect, with the figure jumping from 423 in 2010 to 2,896 in 2014, according to the Ministry of Justice.

But the government has granted refugee status to only a small portion of applicants, with 331 out of 9,155 asylum seekers having won legal status for resettlement during the five-year period.

Korea’s refugee acceptance rate stands at 3.6 percent, much lower than the average rate for U.N. member countries, which sits at 38 percent.

According to the data, the largest numbers of migrants recognized as refugees were from Myanmar followed by Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran, while the biggest portion of refugee applicants were Pakistanis and Egyptians.

Nearly half of the asylum seekers applied for refugee status for political or religious reasons.

Amid the escalating conflicts within Syria, Korea saw a soaring number of Syrian asylum seekers here, but only three of the 740 applicants have succeeded in securing refugee status so far.

Most of the Syrian applicants were granted humanitarian status instead of refugee status, which allows them to work and reside here until the war abates in their country. But those on humanitarian status are guaranteed a lower level of social protection than of refugees.

Govera knew he would have to escape from the country to survive, but many others have arrived in Korea for other purposes without knowing they would end up applying for refugee status here.

A 23-year-old Ethiopian, who only wanted to be identified by her nickname Mimi, told The Korea Herald that she had never considered herself an asylum seeker.

“I meant to go back to Ethiopia to continue my career and activities back home, as there is still so much to be done,” said Mimi, who has been heavily involved in human rights activities and worked for the Ethiopian office of the World Bank for rural development projects before coming to Korea.

“While I was in Korea for a two-week human rights training course at a university in Seoul, I found out that the government arrested my father, brother and fellow activists to hunt me down,” said Mimi. “As the government sees me as ‘terrorist,’ my return could put not only myself, but also my family in jeopardy.”

Mimi received much-needed help from Refuge pNan, a Seoul-based human rights organization, to process her application for refugee status in January. She is waiting to be interviewed by immigration officers.

Mimi herself admitted she was one of the extremely “lucky” cases discovered and helped by human rights activists. Otherwise, she would not have known what steps to take next.

Many of the asylum seekers, however, don’t even know whether they are entitled to refugee status, said Kim Jong-chul, a lawyer for Advocates for Public Interest Law.

Asylum seekers, thus, are poorly prepared for the application process involving document screening and interviews, which lowers the possibility for them to earn the status.

“Once the refugee application is rejected, it seems difficult to reverse the decision in the following stages,” Kim said.

Even if migrants know they are in a situation where they can seek asylum, they face difficulties in proceeding with the application due to language barriers, lack of information and financial problems.

“When I first arrived in Korea, I didn’t know what to do. I spoke no Korean. Everybody in the immigration office seemed unkind, even angry, and didn’t explain the situation to me,” said a 32-year-old Bangladeshi man, who only wanted to be identified by Amin.

Amin fled Bangladesh in 2009 after leading student activists against the government. He entered Korea on a tourist visa with the help of his uncle married to a Korean woman here.

“I financially relied on my uncle at first, but I had to leave his house after I saw him and his wife arguing about me,” said Amin, who even spent some time in the streets, homeless.

The language barrier hindered him from acquiring information about the application process here, which left him with no option but to stay and work here illegally part-time until someone came to rescue him.
“I didn’t know what to do, but I still had to survive. I knew I wasn’t allowed to work without a work permit, but what options do I have? I cannot go back to my country. I will get killed there,” Amin said. 

The Refuge Act stipulates that those who have applied for refugee status are entitled to find employment with a work permit issued by the government six months after the process begins. But the work permit is difficult to get, Amin said. 

“I cannot afford to take time off work to apply for a permit and go back to check whether I got it and explain all the process to my boss,” Amin said.

Lawyer Kim also pointed out that asylum seekers are on a G-1 visa, which technically doesn’t allow them to work. Despite the enforcement of the Refuge Act, many employers remain unaware that they could hire asylum seekers without any legal problems.

“If the work permit is complicated to get, the government should provide asylum seekers with greater social protection,” Kim said. “Without such a measure, it is an irony that the government only tries to track down those forced to illegally work here and deport them.”

Just a few days after Amin had the interview with The Korea Herald, he was caught by immigration officers and detained at a foreigner protection center in Hwaseong, where those ordered to leave Korea spend their final days before being sent back to their home countries.

“What will happen to me next? I am so scared ...” Amin’s last text message read.

Nazmul Hossain, who founded the Refugee Community to help asylum seekers pursue their rights, said that the Refugee Act hasn’t changed the “miserable lives” of asylum seekers here.

“I had to go back to the immigration office almost five times to finally get the work permit,” he said in fluent Korean. “Wouldn’t it be more difficult for those who cannot speak Korean and don’t understand the law to practice their rights?”

“The slow legal process prompts many of the asylum seekers to give up on asking for a work permit and just get a part-time job illegally, trapping them into a vicious cycle,” he said.

By Ock Hyun-ju (