South Korea Promises to Tighten Asylum Screening After Yemeni Refugee Debacle

When just 550 or so people from war-ravaged Yemen arrived over several months in South Korea, the reaction was uncompromising
AFP/Ed JONES

South Korea’s presidential Blue House is finally responding to the petition filed in June after several hundred refugees from Yemen arrived on tiny Jeju Island. The government promised to tighten up asylum screening in response to public complaints on Thursday.

“We will bolster the screening process by making it mandatory for asylum applicants to submit their social media accounts and other measures. We will conduct stringent screenings for drug use, infectious diseases, and records of violent crimes,” Justice Minister Park Sang-ki promised.

“We have decided to come up with measures to help refugees utilize their own capabilities and live independently instead of being passively dependent on protection and support,” Park added, which might vex many of the petition signatories, since one of their major complaints is the suspension of South Korean law to allow the refugees to take jobs.

The petition in question long ago surpassed the minimum number of signatures to require a Blue House response. South Korean citizens were growing impatient with the lack of comment from President Moon Jae-in’s administration.

For their part, refugees think South Korea’s asylum process is much too tight already. In addition to the Yemenis on Jeju Island, asylum-seekers from Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Sudan have accused the South Korean government of unfairly rejecting their applications, in some cases by transcribing their application interviews incorrectly. Only about 4 percent of applicants since the refugee convention was signed in 1992 have been granted refugee status by Seoul.

Justice Minister Park said the government will be tougher on “fake asylum seekers who are clearly seeking to take advantage of the refugee protection system” and will propose “penalties for refugee brokers engaging in illegal activities.”

“Withdrawing from the convention or abolishing the law on refugee protection is realistically impossible when considering our country’s status and reputation in the international community, and the effect such a move may have on our country’s interests,” Park said, promising to add more staff and speed up the screening process.

Chosun Ilbo claimed the Blue House petition was driven by a “surge of xenophobia” after the Yemenis arrived on Jeju, asserting that the presidential office took so long to respond because “the government’s core constituency is among the most xenophobic groups in the country.”

In the very next paragraph, we learn that this vicious gang of xenophobes consists of young men worried about unemployment and young women worried about their safety:

“Opposition to refugees is high especially among people in their 20s and 30s and women,” a Cheong Wa Dae official said, and is related to high youth unemployment and safety fears among women. “There were concerns of a backlash if we hastily expressed an opinion.”

A few hundred Yemenis would not have much of an impact on the South Korean economy at large, but they are a significant problem for Jeju Island, which has struggled to find long-term employment for them. The government has blocked the refugees from entering mainland South Korea from the island.

Pope Francis expressed his support for the Jeju refugees on Thursday and sent them about $12,000 in assistance from papal charities.

“Pope Francis asked the refugees staying on Jeju not to lose their courage. There are no first-class or second-class citizens. We are all beloved human beings. When we admit other people and other religions, we can show our love concretely,” said Archbishop Alfred Xuereb, the apostolic nuncio to Korea.

And yet, even the archbishop qualified that support and acknowledged the difficulties of the situation by adding this advice for the refugees: “You will be welcomed in Korea when you prove you are not harmful to Korean society. You should cooperate with Koreans while staying here.”

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