South Korea, a “homogeneous country”, is experiencing an influx of refugees for the very first time in its modern history. Since July 2018, 500 or so Yemeni asylum-seekers fleeing the civil war entered Jeju Island, a tourist destination accessible visa-free from most countries. South Korea and its people are not fully prepared in dealing with the influx of refugees. As a result, there have been problems in the government policies and in the way South Korean citizens have reacted to the issue.
The term “refugee” was foreign to South Korea until the enactment of the Refugee Act in 2013. Provisions regarding refugees were already established in the Immigration Control Act and its Enforcement Decree in December 1993. However, criticism from activists and lawyers in 2006 that the legal framework of the Immigration Act prioritizes the government’s national security interests more than human rights triggered the legislation of the Refugee Act. Since 1992, South Korea has been a signatory of the UNHCR 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, agreeing to uphold and protect the rights of refugees. The Korean government also established the Refugee Division under the Ministry of Justice on June 2013 to pursue and implement refugee policies. South Korea became the first Asian country to establish a Refugee Act in a separate piece of legislation.
The number of asylum-seeking applicants in Korea has continued to rise since the legislation of the Refugee law. 1,143 asylum-seekers applied in 2012 when the Refugee Act was enacted. In 2017, there were a total of 7,291 applicants. However, the refugee recognition rate remains low. In 2012, only 60 people out of 1,143 applicants acquired refugee status, displaying a low acceptance rate of 5.25%. In the following years, the refugee acceptance rate has not improved but worsened. In 2017, 96 people were granted asylum, an acceptance rate of 1.32%. A poor record in comparison with the 2017 world average, 38%.
The term “refugee” evoked much controversy and debate in South Korea. The refugee crisis became a heated topic when in July 2018, 500 Yemeni asylum-seekers entered Jeju Island. The Korean government’s response to this refugee problem was, on average, hostile. The government imposed a quarantine on the refugee applicants at the end of April 2018, preventing them from moving to mainland Korea. Then, on June 1st, Yemen was included in the list of 12 countries that are excluded from the Jeju Island visa waiver, thus stopping the source of Yemeni asylum-seekers.
The Yemeni refugee influx was first addressed in Jeju Island’s local newspaper, but was catapulted into national news headlines through an online Blue House petition asking for the abolishment of South Korea’s Refugee laws to prevent a mass influx of refugees. This hostile online petition gathered more than 700,000 signatures, making it eligible for an official response by the Blue House representative. The Blue House responded, promising to tighten Korea’s already slim refugee laws and quicken the refugee determination screening process.
Polar opposite public opinions exist surrounding the issue. Both sides have vigorously expressed their stance; rallying, demonstrating and petitioning for opposing solutions to the Jeju Yemeni refugee crisis, that of expatriation or engagement.
Refugees and migration have been a worldwide phenomenon in the recent decade. As the European refugee crisis and the United States’s imposition of strict border controls show, the handling of mass movement of migrants is difficult and controversial. In comparison, 500 Yemeni refugees entering a tourist island is a minor problem. However, the unprecedented number and unexpected refugee crisis have prevented the Korean government and public from responding with appropriate, humanitarian measures. Noting South Korea’s low refugee acceptance rate history, which has displayed a tendency to decline even further, it is questionable whether the Yemeni refugees will be provided with a safe home in this country. As of October 2018, 23 Yemenis have been given humanitarian status. The other 440 or so refugee applicants are waiting for individual results to come out subsequently. Humanitarian status has been given to four families (19 people) and four individuals–amongst them are pregnant women, underaged children and the wounded. This status is given to applicants who do not suit the national law’s definition of refugees but have been offered temporary stay up to a year in the country.