▲ Syrian refugees at a UNICEF school in Lebanon. A UNHCR spokesperson told The Jeju Weekly that the country is doing its duties to protect people fleeing persecution. Photo courtesy DFID
As the refugee crisis in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe continues, Korea and other Asian nations have come under fire for not granting more Syrians asylum.
Despite its distance from the conflict, around 900 Syrians have sought sanctuary in Korea, with 500 arriving since May. Only three of these have been recognized as refugees, however.
Since Korea began accepting asylum applications in 1994, and recognized its first refugee in 2001, the UNHCR records a 12.4 percent overall acceptance rate, somewhat below the global average of 30 percent.
For Syrians the acceptance rate is as low as 1 percent, although some 700 have received temporary sanctuary under G-1 humanitarian visas.
Speaking to The Jeju Weekly, Heinn Shin of the UNHCR in Seoul says that Korea is still fulfilling its duties under international law.
“It is not the acceptance rate that matters, but the fact that all refugees are given the right to seek asylum under a due process and are sufficiently protected until it is safe enough for them to return home.”
Seoul’s provision of G-1 visas, says Shin, is almost a “prima facie recognition of refugees” and is “highly appreciated under international standards.”
Pressure has recently grown on third countries such as Korea to take in refugees after the body of a 3-year-old Syrian refugee, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach in September. His boat capsized in the Mediterranean, en route to Canada via Europe.
Since the incident, Germany and Sweden have pledged an open-door policy and as many as 800,000 and 150,000 refugees are expected to settle there respectively by the year end.
With refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea and other conflict zones also among a mass movement of some 500,000 people, some governments have closed their borders and dubbed the group “economic migrants.”
Shin says such a conflation of terms is unhelpful as no parent would uproot his family and “put his child’s life in danger unless he has absolutely no other choice.”
Daniel Corks, of the South Korea Human Rights Monitor, praises Seoul for its use of humanitarian visas and concurs that merely looking at acceptance rates is misleading, particularly if pre- and post-2013 rates are not treated separately.
He adds, however, that a “robust support system to help refugees” is lacking.
“The laws in place are good, but overcoming the centuries-old hesitancy to accept outsiders won’t happen overnight.”
The welcome enactment of the 2013 Refugee Law remains the only time in Asia the 1951 Refugee Convention has been codified in domestic law. It led to the creation of a refugee department within the Korea Immigration Service and improved basic welfare for refugees and asylum seekers.
The situation for G-1 visa holders is a little different, however. Although some labor restrictions were lifted, asylum seekers cannot work within six months of first submitting their applications, and even then approval is at the discretion of officials. They are also not entitled to essential welfare such as education and medical care.
The National Human Rights Commission claims asylum seekers are thus denied a safe and healthy life and are often forced into the informal economy to survive.
Shin concedes the current support system has weaknesses, and the UNHCR is working hard alongside government and civil society to address them.
Korea was long regarded as an homogenous society but an increase in migrant labor and international marriages, coupled with a falling birth rate, have rapidly changed the ethnic makeup of society.
In addition, the country’s increasing soft power, and Ban Ki Moon’s position as the head of the UN, means refugees fleeing violence and persecution are increasingly looking to Korea as a land of hope and human rights.
If we look at other countries in the region, Taiwan is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and, therefore, has no legal obligation to accept refugees.
Despite signing the Refugee Convention in 1982, China has not honored the treaty by passing domestic laws to protect refugees. To date, there are only 583 official refugees in a country of almost 1.4 billion.
Japan is also a signatory and, according to UNHCR statistics for December 2014, it had a total of 2,560 refugees and 9,296 asylum seekers. On the same measure, Korea had 1,173 refugees and 3,489 asylum seekers.
Tokyo recognized three Syrians as refugees in 2014 and since then has only granted temporary humanitarian visas, as per Korea. Its overall acceptance rate, just 11 of 5,000 in 2014, is extremely low by global standards
It should also be noted that both Korea and Japan pursue a policy tackling refugee crises at source through large donations to the UNHCR.
Looking at the broader international population in Korea, as of January 2015, the almost 1.75 million foreign residents accounted for 3.4 percent of the registered population. This is a threefold increase on 2006, and the foreign population’s 14.4 percent annual growth is 25 times native population growth.
Although the two populations are distinct, they are often conflated in the public imagination (as the UNHCR noted earlier), and there is unease that improved welfare and education provision for refugees and asylum seekers might encourage further settlement in a country struggling with multiculturalism.
The worry is, however, that without certain essential support and services, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing asylum seekers into an underclass without the rights afforded to other groups.
Taking a longer view, however, there are signs Korea’s door is slowly opening to refugees.
As part of a UNHCR program to run until 2017, 30 Myanmarese refugees will arrive in December on F-2 visas and be provided with housing, training and Korean language education. Seoul says the refugees will benefit from a shared Asian culture and the existing Myanmarese community here.
While they are South Korean citizens and not legal refugees, Seoul also supports 25,000 North Koreans through well-funded support centers and education, training, and housing.
A shared culture and language, however, have not been enough to combat widespread social exclusion and poverty. The difficulty in integrating this group is perhaps instructive in understanding Seoul’s position on the wider asylum issue.
Nevertheless, as the 12th largest economy in the world, Korea is more than capable of permanently resettling the Syrian asylum seekers currently within its borders, and it has shown more willingness than its neighbors in providing a haven — albeit temporary — to them.
The litmus test is now whether it can internalize the spirit of the Refugee Convention of 1951 and be a moral beacon in Asia to match its growth economically, diplomatically and culturally.
Where are Syria’s refugees? (Source:UNHCR)
Over 4 million “people of concern”
1.9 million in Turkey
1.1 million Lebanon
*Around 500,000 are thought to have entered Europe
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