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Jeju's Yemen refugee crisis: A test for Korean societyIssues surrounding the opposition to refugees
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승인 2018.09.25  17:29:25
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▲ Anti-refugee protest in Seoul, June 30th. Photo by Jeong Un

Korean society is in a heated debate on the issue of Yemeni refugees on Jeju Island.

Since 2016, the number of refugees from Yemen coming to Jeju has steadily increased. There are now more than 500 refugees requesting that the Korean government recognize their refugee status. The case, with a record number of short-term refugee applications, has emerged as the center of an unprecedented controversy in Korea. The debate surrounding the refugees exploded nationally, beyond the confines of Jeju.

The two conditions that caused the influx of refugees were the Korean government's extensive visa waiver policy and the most inclusive refugee law in East Asia. Since 2002, Jeju has allowed 30 days of visa-free stay for most visitors, except for countries that sponsor terrorism or those without formal relations,. This was for the purpose of attracting tourists to the island. However, it also resulted in lowering the barrier of entry for Yemeni refugees who have nowhere to go. Additionally, South Korea's refugee law provides them with unlimited duration of stay during the screening period. As long as they enter the country and apply for refugee status, they can stay legally up to three years even if the application is rejected as it takes time to complete the administrative lawsuit.

▲ Anti-refugee protest in Seoul, June 30th. Photo by Jeong Un

In Yemen, a civil war is ensuing between the Houthi rebels who staged a coup and the Hadi government. The misery of Yemen is widely known. In the country, children starve to death and families are relocated.

The refugees who first escaped Yemen gathered in Malaysia via Sudan or Saudi Arabia. Entry into European countries has become difficult in recent years, as the terrorist attacks and economic issues has turned the political atmosphere dramatically more conservative. If refugees from the Middle East or North Africa try to enter Europe through the Mediterranean Sea but the governments refuse to accept them, they can’t help but float in the open ocean.

Malaysia is an easy destination for them to enter, because they can stay for 90 days without a visa. It is also an Islamic country where prayer rooms are available and they have easy access to Halal food. But after the arrival of more than 20,000 people, the capacity for acceptance in Malaysia is dropping. The country is also not a member of the Refugee Conventions. There is no specific guideline for accepting the refugees and they are not allowed to get a job. Because the prospect of any economic activity is dim in Malaysia, it can only be a temporary stop for them before they depart yet again.

▲ As the public voices of anti-refugee are getting louder, the voice of protection for refugee are also getting louder.- On the day of anti-refugee protest, another anti-refugee protest in Seoul on the same day. Photo by Jeong Un

As a result, the number of Yemenis who entered Jeju has increased sharply this year. As of June 6, according to the Jeju Immigration and Immigration Bureau, of the 942 foreigners who applied for refugee status up to last month, 515 of the applications where from Yemenis.

Although Jeju has a visa waiver entry system, the door opened for Yemenis when a direct flight between Jeju and Malaysia launched in December last year. Word of mouth was powerful among people from Yemen that Korea has a better refugee system than Malaysia.

As soon as they arrived in Jeju, the Yemenis immediately visit the Jeju Immigration and Immigration Bureau to apply for refugee status. Afterwards, they find the cheapest lodging
and many of them pack themselves in one room, waiting for the government to contact them. To save money, they eat at convenience stores. Some spend all their money and become homeless. Since there are few Arabic speakers in Jeju, communication is difficult.

Following the huge influx of Yemeni refugees, the Ministry of Justice banned Yemen citizens from entering Korea without a visa as of June 1. The problem is those who are currently staying in Jeju. Starting on April 30, the Ministry limited their residential area to Jeju Island. Korea Immigration Service announced that “Although previous cases have been excused, the visitors who enter the country on the visa waiver program are continually moving to other areas for a longer stay in Korea.” They added, “It is not appropriate for the other regions to take responsibility for the problems caused by the visa waiver program in Jeju. According to Immigration, those who enter the country on the visa waiver program must remain in Jeju and their support measures must also be provided by Jeju.

As a result, the public opinion has been divided into two, creating a heated debate. On the Blue House official website, a post arguing for the abolition of the refugee law and the visa waiver program in Jeju, gathered more than 700,000 signatures. Recently, political rallies have been held by the two sides weekly in Seoul. Though some are wary of losing jobs to the refugees, the main rationale for opposing them are concerns about potential crime.

▲ Anti-refugee protest in Seoul, June 30th. Photo by Jeong Un

The decline of the global economy and consequent U.S. protectionism are raising concerns about the economy in Korea. After President Park Geun-hye was deposed by impeachment, the new government is increasingly changing its direction away from corporate-centered growth to welfare-focused economic policies. With the global economy sending out a grave signal, the refugee issue is a sufficient condition to create anxiety for Koreans at a time when the environment surrounding the policy is not favorable. In addition, the spread of fake news through the Internet exacerbates public anxiety and fear. Critics argue that such perceptions are racist and fueled by a dislike of Muslims.

The issue of Yemeni refugees in Jeju is bringing new issues to Korean civil society that had never been discussed before. Most of Korea’s efforts to become a member of the international community, especially an advanced country, have focused on achieving economic indices. The refugee problem cannot be solved by economic power alone. It could be the first time Koreans are tested as international citizens for their level of awareness.

“They offered a large portion of the grain to the king every year as a tribute. The residents suffer in poverty, and cannot properly treat others as they have been treated contemptuously by the mainlanders. There is a tall, wooded mountain and few low bare hills.”

This is an excerpt from Hamel's "Journal and Description of the Kingdon of Korea." Hamel was a Dutch merchant who was stranded 350 years ago on Jeju Island and imprisoned for 13 years — though he requested to return home, Joseon never let him go.

It’s quite ironic how people who arrived from one of the world's most destitute countries are now seeking help from Jeju, the island that used to always be treated with disdain from the mainland. A hundred years ago, Korea lost its sovereignty to Japan, and many people fled to Manchuria and Siberia as migrants. Koreans were refugees then. Perhaps it’s time for us to look back on the past. What would we have done if the refugees were English-speaking white Christians?

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