Since then, the situation has improved to some extent, especially after the Refugee Act that came into force in 2013, although chronic problems linger.
South Korea’s first engagement in the international refugee movement dates back to 1992 when it joined the U.N. Refugee Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Since the country began to accept refugee applications in 1994, some 11,172 people have applied for asylum while only 496 were granted refugee status as of May. Its refugee acceptance rate stands at 4.4 percent, far lower than the U.N. average of 38 percent.
Amid growing international criticism against the Korean government for its poor treatment of asylum seekers, the country enforced the independent Refugee Act in 2013 to guarantee a minimum level of humanitarian protection for the forcibly displaced.
The Refugee Act largely notifies benefits for asylum seekers, with the government being obliged to offer them monthly living expenses and government-run housing in the first six months after their application. The applicants are also granted a work permit to get a job after the six-month period while their claims are being processed.
Another significant accomplishment, experts said, is that asylum seekers are now allowed to apply for refugee status at the port of entry, unlike in the past when those arriving without legitimate visas were immediately deported to their countries of origin.
The law also stipulates the asylum seekers’ rights to be given fair access to application procedures. They can ask for qualified translators, video recordings of application interviews and necessary procedural information.
South Korea also participates in the U.N.-led resettlement program, with the government planning to take in 30 refugees from the border town between Thailand and Myanmar this year alone.
The Korean office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called such improvements a step to become “an advanced country” in hosting refugees.
“We think highly of the Korean government for enacting the independent refugee protection law despite the relatively low number of asylum seekers,” said Shin Hye-in, a spokesperson for UNHCR. “And the refugee law itself upholds international standards.”
The invocation of the law, coupled with the escalating conflicts in war zones across the world, drove up the number of those seeking asylum in Korea by 84 percent from 1,574 in 2013 to 2,896 in 2014, according to the Ministry of Justice.
The landmark law has potential elements to improve asylum seekers’ lives, but it continues to fail to be properly implemented and extended to those really in need of protection, experts said.
“Most of the problems fundamentally arise from the lack of budget,” Ryu Eun-ji, a case manager for a refugee rights group NANCEN, told The Korea Herald.
While financial support is provided for the first six months under the Act, only 124 asylum seekers, 8 percent of the total 1,633 in the January-May period, received between 200,000 ($172) and 400,000 won per month, according to the report published by NANCEN.
Some 85 percent of the asylum seekers did not apply for the government subsidies at all because they either were not aware of the benefits or chose to forgo the fund that is lower than the nation’s monthly minimum wage of 1,116,220 won.
To better accommodate the rising number of asylum seekers, the authorities opened refugee aid facilities in February near Incheon International Airport, which scarfed up a major portion of the budget.
The facilities, ironically, can only house 83 newcomers for up to six months, the report said.
Ryu also took issue with the Justice Ministry’s “ambiguous” standards in deciding whom it grants a placement in the refugee help center and monthly living expenses.
The Justice Ministry, for its part, argued that it has internal policies to decide recipients of living expenses and accommodation.
“We make a decision depending on the applicants’ income, ability to support their family and their type of housing,” the official said, admitting the amount of support might not be satisfactory. “But we have no choice due to the budget shortfall.”
A low understanding of refugees and asylum seekers in Korean society is another discouraging factor for them to claim their rights.
While the law enables the asylum seekers in legal limbo to work with a permit past the first six months upon application, the regulations do not reflect reality, a Bangladeshi asylum seeker said.
“Unfortunately, employers are not aware of the G-1 visa or what an asylum seeker means,” Nazmul Hossain, who applied for asylum in 2012, told The Korea Herald. “They are also not tolerant enough to let us go to the administrative courts and immigration offices several times a month during the refugee screening process.”
When asylum seekers don’t speak fluent Korean or English, as in most cases, their request for a work permit is often refused, Hossain said. And the G-1 visa needs to be extended every six months, which further lowers their chance of securing a job.
“Even I would hate to hire someone like us who needs to take time off work that often,” Hossain said, pointing to the need for grassroots government officials to fully understand the refugee law first.
Such technical problems persist among those who have been granted the refugee status.
“The biggest problem lies in the big gap between the authorities and those enforcing the law at the grassroots levels,” said a 35-year-old Ugandan, who wished to be identified as Daniel. “The law is in place, but officials at local governments have no idea about how to help me.”
“When I go to foreign countries, I cannot travel on a Ugandan passport and I need a travel document, but immigration officers just don’t know what to do during immigration control,” Daniel said.
“The authorities don’t seem to be interested in raising awareness on refugees’ rights or educating government officials,” he added. “Does South Korea’s refugee law only exist to please the international community?”
Despite the government hailing itself as the first Asian country to enact the Refugee Act, pro-refugee lawyers and activists mostly portray it as “incomplete,” calling on the parliament to add clauses and revise unclear ones.
Kim Jong-chul, a public interest lawyer for Advocates for Public Interest Law, told The Korea Herald that many human rights violations take place when asylum seekers are taken into custody at detention centers to go through the refugee application process.
With the refugee law enabling asylum applications at the port of entry, those applying for refugee status upon arrival or traveling on forged visas are locked at the airport’s detention center until the government decides whether to process their application.
“Although many asylum seekers are held at detention rooms for various reasons, there are no legal grounds to limit the length of their stay or protect their rights at the deportation centers,” Kim said, citing detainees who are reportedly living on a chicken burger and Coke for every meal without proper bedding.
The Justice Ministry is supposed to decide within seven days whether to refer asylum seekers to the legal application process in the country. But some asylum seekers, who are refused from applying, choose to endure the poor treatment hoping for a change in the decision.
“As the detention centers were designed only for short-term detention, asylum seekers there cannot have access to legal counseling or the outside world,” Kim said. “The procedures at the airport or harbors should be more articulate and systematic.”
Another loophole can be found in the clause stating asylum applicants’ rights to record or videotape their interviews with immigration officers, according to a report published by APIL.
Despite the existence of the law, only 80 out of 1,770 interviews were videotaped last year.
The law stipulates that the interviewer “may not” refuse the request, but the lawyers’ group said recording should be mandatory for asylum seekers who would rather stay silent in fear that their request might upset the interviewers and adversely affect their application.
“The recording and videotaping, however, are crucial for asylum seekers as they often don’t remember what they said during the interviews due to excessive pressure,” the report said, noting that “the consistency” in applicants’ testimonies is closely linked to their credibility in the refugee screening process.
As of May, a total of 713 Syrians sought asylum here, but only three of them have succeed in securing refugee status. Some 577 of them were allowed to reside and work in Korea on humanitarian grounds, which is valid until the conflicts abate in their country.
While the statistics may sound promising, experts said that the government’s overuse of humanitarian status is one of the biggest controversies.
“The government is using the humanitarian status visa to dodge the burden to socially and financially support Syrian refugees,” said Lee Il, a human rights lawyer at APIL. “Many of the Syrian asylum seekers actually deserve refugee status, but the government sees all of them as a collective group fleeing the war-torn country.”
If applicants don’t qualify for asylum, but there is a well-founded fear of persecution or real risk of serious harm in their home countries, the Justice Ministry offers them a humanitarian status visa in accordance with the Refugee Act.
But unlike its name, the visa restricts its holders from meeting their basic human rights, Lee claimed.
While refugee status holders are granted an F-2 visa, which entitles them to social welfare benefits and rights to bring their families and freely travel outside Korea, those allowed into the country on humanitarian grounds obtain a G-1 visa, the same visa granted for asylum seekers.
“Humanitarian visa holders are locked in Korea like on an island without any rights to bring their family or travel outside Korea,” Lee said.
Lawmakers have proposed eight separate revisions to the refugee law so far.
Rep. Hong Il-pyo of the ruling Saenuri Party suggested in his bill that the recording of interviews be mandatory and translation be offered when necessary.
The opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy’s Rep. Won Hye-young also put forward a bill clarifying procedures for those seeking asylum at the port of entry and enhancing health benefits for humanitarian status holders.
But prospects for the passage of the bills remain bleak, with no discussion on any of the revised bills this year as the politicians remain largely distracted with the upcoming general elections next year.
Pro-refugee activists and lawyers The Korea Herald interviewed stressed one thing in unison: the need for raising awareness on refugees in Korean society.
“There should be a broad consensus in Korean society that refugees are ordinary people like us facing troubled times, so we should protect them,” the lawyer Kim said.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com