Yemeni Refugees Struggle to Adapt to South Korean Society

JEJU, SOUTH KOREA - JUNE 19, 2018: Yemeni refugees queue to register their names for a job forum at Jeju Immigration Office on June 19, 2018. (Photo by Min Too Kim/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Min Too Kim/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The South Korean resort island of Jeju provides a fascinating case study in refugee politics as the small island wrestles with an unexpected surge of refugees from Yemen’s civil war.

The Yemenis are having trouble adapting to South Korean society, authorities are ignoring local laws to accommodate them, local sources of food and clothing are stretching their supplies to the breaking point, and Jeju residents are worried they are losing control of the island.

The numbers of people involved are relatively small compared to the world’s other refugee crises. The surge of Yemenis who relocated to Jeju after exhausting the much more limited refuge options in Malaysia adds up to 561 people this year, which represents a 1,000 percent increase over 2017. The population of Jeju province is only about half a million people. The islanders tend to be fiercely protective of its culture and natural beauty, pushing back hard (and unsuccessfully) when the South Korean government decided to build a naval base there.

There is also lingering resentment from scandals involving Chinese nationals who abused or defrauded the asylum system, plus concerns over Chinese and other foreign interests buying up a great deal of the island. Some Jeju residents were actually quite pleased when China cut off tourism to South Korea during the North Korean nuclear missile crisis, welcoming the break from heavy tourism and saying outside business interests scoop up much of the profit from tourists anyway.

South Korea, overall, has very tough restrictions on the permanent resettlement of refugees, granting only a small fraction of asylum requests each year. Jeju has additional restrictions, including a local ordinance that requires asylum seekers to wait six months before taking a job.

This law, intended to keep the majority of fishing and hospitality jobs open for locals, was controversially waived for the Yemenis. Some islanders seethed when the government not only set the restriction aside but hosted job fairs for the Yemenis, sending a rather strong signal to business owners that they should hire as many of the refugees as possible. The authorities countered that government assistance and local charity simply was not enough to care for the refugees, so it was necessary to secure employment for them.

JoongAng Ilbo gave an idea of how much pressure the Jeju government is under by noting on Tuesday that Jeju increased the staff of its immigration office by 50 percent to handle the influx of refugees from Yemen, which means the office now has three staffers instead of two:

Each officer interviews an applicant one on one and decides whether they were indeed forced to flee their country because of persecution, war or violence. The office said it will be employing more officials for Arabic translation and interpretation.

“I will ask President Moon Jae-in for a swift yet accurate refugee status determination process for the Yemenis in Jeju,” Jeju Gov. Won Hee-ryong said at the island’s immigration office on Sunday. “The Jeju government will cooperate to minimize the concerns of the people of the island and Korea at large.”

Given that the asylum deliberation process may take months or even years, some locals have raised concern about the number of asylum seekers in the country.

The petition asking South Korea’s presidential Blue House to suspend visa-free entrance to Jeju — a policy intended to encourage tourism, but now enabling the surge of asylum-seekers — has now collected over 407,000 signatures. The petition notes that South Korea only signed the Refugee Act five years ago, becoming the first Asian nation to do so, and the system has already been abused and stressed to the breaking point.

As JoongAng Ilbo notes, the South Korean Justice Ministry has already added Yemen to the short list of nations that do not enjoy visa-free access to Jeju, “but they can still apply for asylum if they reach Jeju Airport.”

Another factor in the refugee situation is that inexpensive air travel to Jeju direct from Malaysia was implemented last year in a bid to compensate for lost Chinese tourism by bringing in visitors from other parts of Asia. Islanders were caught by surprise when these cheap tickets that bypass the major airport in Inchon became a pipeline for Yemenis pushed out of Malaysia.

“I have been trying to go back home, but the civil war prevents my returning home. I am healthy and strong so I can do well in whatever jobs are given to me here. I’ve been eating just one meal a day because I ran out of my savings. I really need a job,” one Yemeni refugee told JoongAng.

The total number of asylum-seekers for 2018 peaked at 561, but it is down to 486 because some of them left when the government barred them from leaving the island and entering mainland South Korea.

Those measures may reduce the flow of refugees to Jeju, but attorney Simon D. Lee told 10 Magazine it is unlikely the South Korean government will deport the hundreds of Yemenis already on the island, even though historically only a small percentage of them have a shot at meeting Seoul’s tough requirements for asylum.

“The government will now have to make a difficult decision regarding the refugee crisis in Jeju. They have to balance the necessity of helping refugee applicants while taking into consideration the overwhelming opposition from Korean citizens,” said Lee.

As with every other destination nation, the South Koreans must also consider whether permissive policies will encourage more refugees to make a desperate bid for their soil. Jeju faces the same problem in microcosm as every other advanced nation: systems designed with good intentions to handle a modest number of migrants and refugees collapse when the number of applicants increases tenfold, and the problem becomes exponentially more difficult to deal with after the applicants set foot on the host country’s soil.

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