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[According to the law] (3) Seeking refuge in S. Korea

From international marriages, political asylum to run-ins with the law, there are a myriad of legal problems that foreign nationals can get embroiled in. The Korea Herald takes a look at some of the cases involving legal disputes of foreigners in South Korea. The following is the final installment. -- Ed.



The Refugee Act stipulates that anyone within South Korean territory has the right to apply for refugee status, and according to a recent ruling, that includes the airport transit area.

In February 2020, a Democratic Republic of Congo national took a flight from Vietnam to Palau, stopping at Incheon Airport for a transfer. But the person did not take his flight, and instead stayed in the transit zone for three days before applying for refugee status without going through the entry procedure.

Local immigration authorities declined the request on grounds that the person did not go through the entry process, quoting Article 6 of the Refugee Act, which specifies the requirements for foreigners seeking asylum when undergoing entry inspection. The Congo national in question filed a lawsuit against the Incheon Immigration Office to challenge the decision.

On June 4, 2020, Incheon District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, on grounds that the said act grants rights to apply for refugee status to foreign nationals within South Korea, and that this includes the transit zone. It stated that Article 6 is merely to show that foreigners can go through the refugee procedure more quickly when he or she applies upon entering the country, and does not necessarily state that one has to go through the entry process in order to apply. 

(Illustration by Park Ji-young)
(Illustration by Park Ji-young)


Incheon Immigration Office appealed the case, but the Seoul High Court confirmed the lower court ruling on April 21, 2021, by again siding with the plaintiff.

An asylum application filed by an illegal immigrant facing deportation tends to get more scrutiny, but in a rare case in 2018, an Iranian Christian was not sent back to his Islamic home country on grounds of religion.

The person was arrested in 2016 after 13 years of stay in South Korea without a valid visa. While under detention at Hwaseong Foreigners Shelter and awaiting deportation, the person applied for a refugee status, saying he or she will be persecuted upon returning to Iran for having converted to Christianity here.

The Hwaseong shelter declined the request, saying that there was not enough evidence to prove that the person will be subject to oppression in Iran, and that he or she did not apply for a refugee status until after being caught as an illegal alien. The person challenged the decision with a lawsuit.

On Feb. 13, 2018, Suwon District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, saying that chances of the person facing persecution in Iran is deemed high since the Iranian national has not just converted into Christianity, but actively promoted the Christian faith, inviting fellow Iranians to church and converting several of them. It is possible that Iranian authorities are aware of the plaintiff’s conversion and evangelistic activities, the court added.

In February of 2018, UN human rights experts called for fair trial on three Iranian Christians who were given heavy prison terms for “conducting evangelism” and “illegal house church activities.” They stated that there were other cases in which Christians have received heavy sentences for converting people or attending house churches.

Article 2 of South Korea’s Refugee Act defines refugees as foreigners who do not wish to be protected by one’s nation on “well-grounded fear that he or she is likely to be persecuted based on race, religion, nationality, the status of a member of a specific social group, or political opinion.”

While getting a refugee status based on religion is possible, it is worth noting that it is extremely rare. In fact, being formally acknowledged as a refugee itself is an incredibly difficult feat.

According to the most recent data by the Korea Immigration Service under the Ministry of Justice, 73,934 people have applied for a refugee status from 1994 to February of 2022, but only 1,180 -- or 1.6 percent -- received an official refugee status. Another 2,315 have been permitted to stay for humanitarian reasons.

The KIS does not tally exactly how many people get refugee statuses based on religion, although 17,493 people have cited “religion” as the reason.

“The applicants cite several reasons and it is not rare for them to change the reason for application midprocess. Thus, we cannot say for sure how many of these cases were granted for religious reasons,” a KIS official said.



By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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