August 02, 2018 11:06
The government on Wednesday promised to toughen screening of asylum seekers amid a surge of xenophobia over the arrival of hundreds of Yemenis on Jeju Island.
Record numbers of citizens signed a petition on the Cheong Wa Dae website urging the government to toughen screening of foreigners.
But Cheong Wa Dae pointed out that Korean independence fighters benefited from generous asylum policies in the early 1900s, freely setting up an interim government in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of Korea.
"We must discuss the issue of refugees based on an understanding of foreign cultures," a Cheong Wa Dae spokesman said.
The petition was put up on June 13 and drew 714,875 signatures, prompted by the arrival of 549 Yemenis in Jeju who fled civil war and famine in their country by taking advantage of a visa waiver aimed at attracting tourists.
Jung Hye-seung, the presidential secretary in charge of the website, said, "Many people became refugees during the Korean War, and residents of Jeju fled to Japan during the Jeju Massacre," a murderous postwar government campaign to root out communism. Jung added that the issue needs more discussion and thought and the top priority will be the safety of Korean citizens.
Justice Minister Park Sang-ki said, "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," he added.
The minister also pledged to crack down on human traffickers who take money to send foreigners to Korea with the promise that asylum seekers can abuse the country's permission to work while their paperwork is being reviewed.
Cheong Wa Dae had been silent on the issue until now, apparently because the government's core constituency is among the most xenophobic groups in society.
"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."
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