Seoul (AFP) – South Korea will tighten its refugee laws, it said Friday, after protests over the arrival of hundreds of asylum-seekers who fled war-ravaged Yemen for its southern resort island of Jeju.
The South, which was itself left devastated by the 1950-53 Korean War, is a highly homogenous society and approves refugee status to only a tiny proportion of applicants.
Refugees fleeing North Korea are automatically entitled to South Korean citizenship, but more than 40,000 people from elsewhere in the world have applied for asylum in the country since 1994.
More than half of the asylum cases have been decided and refugee status was granted to just 4.1 percent, or 839 people.
Even so hundreds of Yemenis have sought refugee status this year after taking advantage of the visa-free access Seoul offers to Jeju island in an attempt to promote tourism.
Around 550 have already done so in 2018, compared to just 42 for the whole of last year.
South Koreans have not welcomed the new arrivals, expressing concern over cultural differences and costs.
“Hordes of illegal Muslim immigrants are coming in to Islamise the country,” wrote one online poster in response to a news story on the migrants.
Another added: “Most of them are young male Yemenis. They are job seekers, not refugees.”
Half a million people have backed an online petition to the presidential Blue House urging their deportation, and protesters have called for candle-lit rallies on Saturday in Seoul and Jeju.
Yemen is in the throes of a brutal conflict between a Saudi-led coalition and Iran-allied Huthi rebels, and has been called the world’s largest humanitarian crisis by the UN.
But earlier this month South Korea removed it from the list of countries whose citizens are entitled to visa waivers for Jeju, and barred Yemenis travelling from the island to the mainland.
Under South Korea’s refugee law, applicants who are rejected can appeal to the courts, and the whole process may take as long as five years.
The justice ministry said Friday the government will amend the law to prevent it being abused and increase staff to shorten the application processing time from eight months to two or three.
“The government takes the people’s concerns over the Yemeni refugees in Jeju seriously,” Vice Justice Minister Kim Oh-soo told journalists.
“Together with speedy processing, we will step up the screening of applicants to filter out potential terrorists and criminals.”