Despite Increasing Applications, Korea Accepts Few Refugees

    June 20, 2008 06:39

    Actor Shin Hyun-jun, World Refugee Day PR envoy.
    Some 11 million refugees worldwide roam beyond their countries' borders because of persecution at home. On the 8th World Refugee Day on Friday, the Justice Ministry revealed that 1,951 people have applied for refugee status in Korea since 1994 when the country began accepting applications to May this year.

    But Korea granted refugee status to only 76 applicants, the lowest number among the 30 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Refugees for the entire OECD number 2.5 million, over half of which are in the U.S. (840,000), Germany (610,000) and the UK (300,000). Korea lags behind Japan (1,840), Iceland (260) and even Slovakia (240).

    Korea's poor record on refugees is due to a lack of interest at the government level. The United Nations installed the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 1951 but Korea only joined the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in Dec. 1992 and began accepting applicants two years later.

    Only 96 applied until 2000 but applicant numbers have since soared to 717 last year alone, and there have been calls for special measures to protect refugees. The vast majority of applicants -- 96.6 percent -- come from Asia (1,133) or Africa (752), with the top three countries being Nepal (374), China (302) and Burma (192).

    Refugee applicants receive a G-1 visa which must be renewed every three months. They are not allowed to work and are not covered by health insurance, and even those who are granted refugee status enjoy no employment or living support programs.

    Applicants also say that Korea's deliberation period is particularly long; over 60 percent of the 1,951 applicants are still waiting. Deliberations alone once took eight years, the Joint Committee with Migrants in Korea says. Only eight government officials are charged with refugee affairs -- two in the Justice Ministry and six at Seoul Immigration. The ministry says the process takes so long because of a shortage of staff.

    In Canada, the government operates a Resettlement Assistance Program, sort of a fund for refugees, and provides lodging, basic necessities, employment assistance and health checkups. In France, refugees who pay a quarter of their income can stay and eat at 28 state-run facilities for refugee families. They also receive support for basic living, childcare, larger families and elderly family members.

    It's no exaggeration to say that Korea has no such support programs. A Justice Ministry official confirmed the lack of institutions and budgets for refugees and applicants. An official with the South Korean branch of Amnesty International blamed Korea's poor reputation on refugees to its view of refugees as a mere immigration affair, rather than seeing the issue from a human rights perspective.

    But the Justice Ministry says that as more are granted refugee status following deliberations, Korea's acceptance level is not short of the global standard. Korea's recognition rate (15.5 percent) is lower than that of the U.S. (37.4 percent) and UK (17.1 percent), but higher than that of France (10.2 percent), Germany (6.8 percent) and Japan (6.2 percent).

    Some applicants to Korea have been able to win refugee status through lawsuits even after being declined by the government. The Seoul Administrative Court said among the single case filed in 2004 and 51 through last year, a fifth had won. "It's difficult for refugees to prove the persecution they claim to have suffered at home," a court official said. "Courts tend to grant recognition based on consistent and concrete testimony and arguments that do not contradict facts relating to the country in question, even without hard proof."

    Cha Gyu-geun of the Justice Ministry's National and Refugee Team said, "It's true -- budget support and interest are insufficient in Korea due to its short history with the issue, but efforts are being made to establish a world-class refugee protection system."

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