South Korea Denies 500 Yemenis Refugee Status
On Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Korea (ROK, commonly South Korea) announced that it had rejected applications for refugee status from over 500 Yemeni asylum seekers who had arrived at the southern resort island of Jeju earlier this year. The government instead granted a majority of applicants “humanitarian stay” permits, which are issued when the government determines that applicants do not qualify for full refugee status but still allows for applicants to temporarily stay in South Korea for a year on the basis of “other reasons.”
Most of the Yemenis fled abroad due to the country’s ongoing civil war. As a result of the intense conflict between Houthi rebels backed by Iran and a coalition of armed groups backed by Saudi Arabia, at least 15,000 are estimated to have died, with a dire humanitarian crisis — including malnutrition, cholera outbreaks, and massive displacement — engulfing over 20 million more.
Over 500 Yemeni asylum-seekers arrived in Jeju — a premier resort island due south of the Korean Peninsula that has no visa requirements for entry — over the first five months of 2018. Anti-asylum backlash flared up across South Korea by June, with shades of anti-Islamic and anti-Arab sentiment present in protests that called on Seoul to stop taking in asylum-seekers. The government ultimately tightened restrictions on visa requirements to enter Jeju and banned the Yemenis from entering mainland South Korea, thus stranding the refugees on Jeju while their applications for refugee status were processed.
All 481 applications for full refugee status were denied. However, 339 Yemenis received one-year humanitarian stay visas in this month’s decision — joining 23 Yemenis who were granted the same in September — while decisions on a further 85 were deferred for further interviews with immigration authorities. The humanitarian stay visa — which allows for the Yemenis to leave Jeju for the mainland — can be renewed every year, thus permitting continued residency in South Korea; however, the humanitarian stay visa does not grant the holder crucial benefits, such as health care or residency for additional family members, that are accorded to those officially recognized by Seoul as refugees.
An additional 34 applications were outright rejected without any other status granted to applicants owing to prior criminal history or non-asylum economic purposes. Rejected applicants can challenge the decision in court; while the lawsuit is dealt with, they can stay in Jeju but are barred from traveling to other parts of South Korea.
In a statement, the government cited the “serious civil war situation in Yemen” and the possibility of the arrest of the Yemenis in other countries should they be deported from South Korea as the reasons for granting humanitarian stay visas. Furthermore, the justice ministry pledged to revise applicable legislation to prevent “fake” asylum-seekers from abusing the system and speed up deliberations on applications.
However, the government declined to elaborate why the asylum-seekers were denied full refugee status, which is granted under ROK law in cases where applicants face individual persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, or political belief.
South Korea has some of the lowest rates in the world for recognizing and accepting refugees. Since 1994, Seoul has only approved 839 out of 40,470 applications (barely 2%) for refugee status, a statistic that does not include defectors from North Korea. However, public opinion polls clearly indicate the unpopularity of the idea of granting asylum in South Korea, which suggests the denial of refugee status is measured response by the government to prevailing political winds. Estimates place roughly half of the general South Korean population as opposed to granting asylum to the Yemenis, with opposition among Korean youth (20s and 30s) sitting at 60 to 70 percent.
Accusations alleging that Seoul made a politically calculated decision with regards to the Yemenis are accompanied by the fact that the vast majority of ROK President Moon Jae-in’s base is the South Korean youth. In July, an opinion piece in The New York Times written in response to anti-asylum protests accused South Koreans of xenophobia, which sparked international controversy over South Korean anti-immigrant sentiment.
Meanwhile, some have pointed out that the controversy is a reflection of the dissatisfaction widespread among the South Korean youth. Soaring unemployment, loss of faith in political institutions, and exorbitantly high living costs may be fueling populist sentiments, especially among the most exposed section of the population — the youth. In an anti-asylum demonstration in Seoul earlier this year, one protester held a sign that proclaimed that “the people of our nation come first.”
Other criticism has contrasted Seoul’s treatment of the Yemenis to their program designed for accepting North Korean defectors. South Korea has an extensive protocol for providing basic needs for North Korean political asylum-seekers. According to the website of ROK’s Ministry of Unification, the government offers settlement support that “incorporates the defectors into the social safety net,” including basic living security, medical care, and education that includes tuition waiver for high schools and public universities.
The number of migrants to South Korea has increased in the last ten years. According to the International Migration Report, compiled by the United Nations, 244,000 migrants resided in ROK in 2000; that number rose over five-fold to 1,152,000 by 2017.