Has the Problem of Illegal Migrants and Refugees Reached South Korea?

P 02.08.2018 U Konstantin Asmolov


On 7 July 2018, a 700-strong protest took place in front of the office of Seoul’s mayor. People came out into the streets carrying signs, such as “Put Koreans before refugees”, and protesting against the policies of the provincial administration of the Jeju island, which, in their opinion, is responsible for flooding Korea with “fake refugees”. Other slogans bore messages as “Koreans first”, “We want security” and “Who is this country for?”.

A petition, posted on the Blue House’s website, voicing similar demands, has been signed by 615,534 people, while, on the island, an appeal bearing a different name but concerning the same topic has collected 250,000 signatures.

In order to grasp the situation, we first need to understand the issue of illegal immigration in the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the legislation that grants refugee status to those who desire it.

The number of foreigners residing in ROK illegally reached 220,510 by the end of April 2017, which constitutes 10.8% of all the foreigners in South Korea.  Most foreigners in ROK come from China (48.6 %), the Vietnamese are in second place at 7.7 %, while Americans, Thais and Filipinos make up 7.3 %, 5 % and 2.8 % of the foreign population respectively. However, just a little over a year later, there were 312,346 illegals in South Korea by the end of May 2018.

More than half of these foreigners work in the heavy manual labor sphere. According to the data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the Ministry of Justice, by May 2017, 1,225,000 foreigners over the age of 15 had been in the country for more than 91 days. 24.5 % of these individuals do not have insurance, while 73.2 % are not registered in the pension system. 11.6% of the foreigners reported that they had faced financial difficulties during the year. Almost half of them did not use medical services even when they needed to due to lack of finances. Out of the 800,000 foreigners employed full time, 60.8% do not have income protection insurance.  Understandably, illegal immigrants endure even more hardships.

Rising numbers of illegals affect the increasing crime rate among the foreigners in ROK. In comparison to 2012, 2016 saw the number of criminals in the expat community rise 1.66 times among the Chinese, 4.3 times among the Thai residents, and 2 times among the Filipino citizens.  This figure is increasing most rapidly among foreigners coming from countries that ROK is collaborating with to widen visa-free travel thereby attracting tourists. In August 2017 the number of foreigners found to have broken the law was 30,756 people.

Individuals who arrived in South Korea thanks to the visa-free regime or as tourists, since state restrictions had been loosened to ease their entry, make up a significant proportion of the illegals

Notably, the Winter Olympic Games, held in Pyeongchang, saw tourist groups from Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines entering South Korea visa-free. At least 10,000 foreigners then stayed in ROK illegally.

According to the Ministry of Justice, by June 2017  72,054 of the illegals had entered South Korea thanks to the visa-free regime, while by August 2017 that number had risen to 95,718 individuals, which constitutes 38.9 % of all the illegals residing in South Korea at that time.

Undoubtedly, the fight against illegal immigration continues, but not very successfully. In 2017, 13,255 foreigners with no legal status in ROK were arrested and 2,549 South Koreans who had hired them were exposed. In addition, during the same year 15,728 illegals left South Korea voluntarily via the “Green Corridor”.

At the same time, there are increasing efforts to find brokers who help foreigners enter ROK illegally and also find work for them.   Only from May to June 2018, 58 brokers who had openly posted job advertisements on Facebook and other social media sites, and 123 employers who had illegally hired foreign immigrants were arrested.

As far as the refugee issue is concerned, South Korea signed the UN Convention on the status of refugees in 1992. Two years later, relevant legislation was adopted in Asia for the first time, and ROK began receiving applications. By the end of April 2018, 38,169 people had submitted their applications, but only 825 of these applicants were granted refugee status. Additionally, the South Korean government allowed 1,534 foreigners to remain in the country for humanitarian reasons. Hence, approximately 3 % of the applicants receive refugee status, while the world average stands at 38%.

From 1994 to 2010, only 2,915 people sought refugee status from South Korea’s Ministry of Justice, but after 2015, the number of applicants began to increase steadily and in the period from 2017 to 2018, this number of applications rocketed. Only since the beginning of 2018, 7,291 (other sources claim the actual number is 8,348) applications have been received, and by the end of the year the number is expected to exceed 10,000.

South Koreans have linked this sudden jump in applications to the fact that after 2011, the political situation in the Middle East began to deteriorate, which led to a sharp increase in the number of refugees from this region all over the world. However, South Korea’s media sources, citing the Immigration Service, report that 60 % of the foreigners who apply for a refugee status in South Korea are citizens of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia, followed by Pakistan, Thailand and Egypt.

This could be explained by the fact that, despite the high percentage of refusals, ROK provides individuals seeking refuge fairly comfortable living conditions. If an individual crosses the South Korean border (for example, by entering the country visa-free for a short stay), he or she can subsequently apply for refugee status and then wait in the country. This person also has the right to appeal (up to 3 times) and remain in ROK from 2 to 5 years while his application is being reviewed.  South Korea also allows refuge seekers to work six months after they had submitted their application and even before it is accepted. This gives fictitious and mock illegals an opportunity to earn quite handsomely before their application is finally rejected.

This is a problem for a traditional mono-ethnic country such as ROK, and South Koreans’ reaction towards these refugees is not dissimilar to that in Europe. The media enjoys emphasizing that the number of individuals attempting to gain refugee status in ROK is greater than the total number of people defecting from DPRK to South Korea. The proportion of citizens who are increasingly accusing refugees of being economic migrants and coming to the country for financial gain; of causing crime, and of their unwillingness to embrace the Korean culture is also on the rise.

The protest organizers in Seoul had such a viewpoint. Allegedly, they are not against refugees as a whole, but they do not want their country to transform into a European nation suffering from a “refugee crisis”. ROK should not embrace foreigners who are trying to take advantage of its policies for financial gain.

Common xenophobia also needs to be taken into account. According to the survey, conducted by the GRI Research agency, 61.1 % of respondents do not view foreign workers as an integral part of South Korean society.  13.4 % of those surveyed feel negatively towards foreigners who stay in ROK for a long period or seek South Korean citizenship.  29.3% indicated that their attitude towards foreigners depends on where they come from.

As far as the island of Jeju is concerned, its famous pristine nature and distinctive culture made the arrival of the first large group of Yemeni refugees, fleeing the civil war and starvation in their country, immediately noticeable.

Wagging evil tongues claim that most of the Yemenis reached the island from Malaysia, which refused to grant them refugee status and treated them as regular migrants. The Yemenis then took advantage of the visa-free regime with Jeju. Since refugee applications are handled by only 2 pubic servants in Jeju, the refuge seekers can stay for quite some time, as fortunately, work is plentiful and every other restaurant illegally hires foreigners.   The situation is further complicated by the fact that a few years ago Yemen was included in the list of countries, whose citizens should not visit ROK unless there is a good reason.

At present, the Yemeni community is comprised of more than 549 people. Jeju’s Immigration office reported that in 2018, 950 foreigners had already applied for a refugee status, in comparison to 312 applicants for the entirety of 2017. Yemenis account for 54.7 % of these applications, and due to their sudden increase, the government has loosened its restrictions on hiring refugees and has started providing medical services to them.

Naturally, in general, the reaction from the South Korean society towards the situation is quite ambiguous.  Human rights organizations are demanding a multi-pronged approach to the problem, appropriate for a globalized society, and are emphasizing the need for government responsibility.   Traditionalists point out that a dangerous precedent is being set and spread fears about the impending threat of Islamic terrorism.

In this charged climate, on 1 June 2018, Yemen was included in a list of countries, whose citizens cannot enter Jeju without a visa, and on 20 June the South Korean President Moon Jae-in issued an order to resolve this situation. According to Kim Eui-kyeom, South Korea’s Presidential spokesperson, for humanitarian reasons, 500 Yemeni refugees will receive work in the agricultural and livestock spheres, and will be provided with medical services and food. However, in order to avoid conflicts, a decision has been made to increasingly patrol the areas housing the refugees.  In addition, the Yemenis are not allowed to leave the island, which is why they have faced issues with food shortages.

On 25 June, the Jeju Immigration Office began speeding up the process of reviewing the refugee status applications submitted by Yemeni citizens.  Still, the fact remains that reviewing an application from one person takes no less than 6 months, which is why 2 or 3 individuals are being processed per day. This means that it will take about 6 to 8 months to go over all the Yemeni applications.

On 29 June South Korea’s Ministry of Justice presented a series of measures to solve the refugee issue.  The number of inspectors reviewing the documents will be increased, while the processing period will decrease by 2 to 3 months. The authorities are intent on being thorough in their reviews, in order to ensure that they do not allow individuals that have committed serious crimes or those with terrorist links into the country. Besides, changes in legislation are being considered. These adjustments are aimed at minimizing the number of refugees who take advantage of ROK’s policies for personal or financial gain. The appeal system for those whose applications have been rejected will be simplified. At the same time the temporary travel ban for Yemeni refugees in Jeju is still in place.

At the beginning of June, the Ministry of Justice arrested 4 lawyers, 36 brokers and 7 interpreters / translators for a conspiracy to establish a robust criminal organization that provides refugees with visa application services. Investigations have revealed that the culprits worked with mock refugees from Yemen, coached them on what to say and how to communicate during interviews, and charged each applicant 5000 US dollars for these services.

Clearly, it will take time to completely resolve this problem, especially if South Korea’s demographics and a serious fall in birth rates are taken into account, as sooner or later the government will have to create a program aimed at combatting the consequences of these changes in ROK’s society.  Lower birth rates often lead to immigrants filling the gaps in the work force, which, in turn, causes further problems linked to these individuals’ ability to assimilate in their adoptive country. For a traditional mono-ethnic nation such as South Korea, this is a painful issue, which, if not resolved with due care, could lead to a myriad of social problems.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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