Jeju Island has become a hot potato inside the Korean government. On the same day the Ministry of Justice listed Yemen as a state whose nationals are not permitted to enter the sub-tropical island without a visa, the National Human Rights Commission issued a strong statement urging agencies in charge to take more active measures to protect the basic rights of the refugees from Yemen staying on the island. Both happened on June 1.
It all started with a recent surge of Yemeni refugees entering the island. Originally, before the latest Justice Ministry’s decision on June 1, Yemeni nationals could enter South Korea’s southernmost island without a visa under the island’s no-visa entry policy. Once on the island, they could then apply for refugee status. As a party to 1951 Refugee Convention and under 2013 Refugee Act, the Immigration Service should review applications and accord refugee status to those who satisfy the requirements.
As arrival means entry, application for refugee status through Jeju has been made relatively easier than other entry points such as Incheon Airport, where visas are required in the first place to enter Korea. And as a result Yemeni refugees arriving in the island seeking asylum has increased fast. As of May 24 a total of 869 refugee applications are pending in Jeju, 479 of which have been filed by Yemeni nationals. Most of them cite the possibility of persecution in their home country due to the civil war. By way of comparison, there were only 10 and 52 Yemeni applications in 2016 and 2017.
So, now after June 1, newly arriving refugees from Yemen can only apply for asylum in Korea through a much-tougher regular entry procedure.
In its June 1 recommendation statement, the NHRC does not take issue with the government’s decision to list Yemen as a visa-requiring state for Jeju entry (by the way, only 12 states including Yemen are now listed). Rather, the commission underscores the importance of ensuring an expedited review process for applications, citing the hardships that applicants have to go through during the pendency. It also recommends to increase the immigration agency’s capacity to hear the claims and make decisions swiftly, in order to “fulfill Korea’s obligation under the Refuge Convention and the domestic statute.”
The current situation on Jeju is of course rather peculiar, stemming from the island’s unique status as a liberal entry point of the nation. But the problems that Jeju government and Immigration Service Jeju branch office encounter at the moment mirror the challenges we are facing nationally -- a chronic shortage of resources and manpower to handle and process refugee applications. With a continuing surge of applications the whole system is overburdened. In 2017 alone, 9,942 applications were filed.
Korea has been one of the most rigid countries in terms of granting refugee status to foreigners. Among 32,733 applicants during the 1994-2017 period, only 792 received the status. As each case is different, it would be difficult to provide a one-size-fits-all answer. But a meager 2.4 percent acceptance rate implies that our refugee review system needs its own reviewing. A lack of skilled manpower and logistical resources should be one of the reasons, undoubtedly. The commission’s recommendation therefore is not just directed at the Jeju situation as an aberration, but nudges the government to contemplate a structural reform.
Korea has a legal obligation to protect refugees from other countries. We are now entering a new phase where adequate infrastructure is established so as to fulfil our obligation.
By coincidence, the Constitutional Court issued a ruling on May 31 that a foreign national who has applied for refugee status upon arrival at a Korean airport has the “right to counsel” under the Korean Constitution. This is a ruling in response to a petition filed by a Sudanese national claiming his right to counsel was denied at Incheon Airport in 2013. It is not just international instruments. Our own judiciary mandates a more thorough process in refugee reviews and protection.
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.