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New Faces in Jeju Island sparks Intense Debate in South Korea

※ For the sake of accuracy, the term ‘asylum seeker’ will be used to describe Yemenis who have arrived in Jeju island. ※

Fact check

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  • A refugee does not share the same meaning as an asylum-seeker. According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,) ‘an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.’

    The world’s largest humanitarian crisis (since 1945 when World War II marked its end) is not the Syrian civil war. As a matter of fact, the Yemeni civil war is "the world's worst humanitarian crisis" according to the United Nations. Due to the conflict, about 2 million people have fled their homes and more than 8 million are on the brink of famine. Around 1000 Yemeni asylum seekers arrived in Jeju Island so far and it has created on-going conflicts in Korea, one of the most racially homogenous nations there is.

    Fact check (Did you know)

    Refugees : Special class of migrants who under international law deserve specific protection by their host state; a person who ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’ according to Article 1 of the 1951 UN Convention, as modified by the 1967 Protocol.

Qualifying conditions include: (1) presence outside home country; (2) well-founded fear of persecution; (3) incapacity to enjoy the protection of one’s own state from the persecution feared.

What is Yemeni Crisis and How did Yemeni asylum seekers end up in Jeju Island?

If there was a dystopian world, it will certainly resemble the current situation of Yemeni Crisis. According to the United Nations, approximately 18 million people are facing food shortage and a horrifying 8.4 million people do not know how they will obtain their next meal. Worse news continues as two-thirds of Yemenis don't have access to clean water. There is no denying Yemen is facing the world’s deadliest crisis.

Fact check (Did you know):

The conflict began as Yemen’s authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh failed to hand his political power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in 2011. President Hadi struggled with numerous kinds of problems, including attacks by al-Qaeda, a separatist movement in the south, as well as corruption and food insecurity. (BBC, Yemen crisis: Who is fighting whom?)

IDP[1] and fleeing refugees were the inevitable aftermath of the crisis. Among more than 2 million refugees/asylum seekers, approximately 500 to 1,000 Yemeni asylum seekers unexpectedly found themselves in Jeju resort island. They arrived in Jeju because of the tourist destination's policy of allowing foreigners visa-free entry for as many as 30 days. Most of them arrived from Malaysia after their 90-day no-visa expired. A new direct flight to Jeju from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur was their ticket. As unexpected the Jeju island residents were, so were the new faces.

What actions have the Republic of Korea taken so far? What is their reaction?

Up to this time, the administration of President Moon Jae-in (the son of a North Korean refugee himself) has adhered to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees allowing people to apply for asylum. However, the immigration office of Jeju prohibited the Yemenis from traveling outside the island on April 30th, 2018. On May 1st, it also removed Yemen from the list of countries allowed visa-free entry. Fueling the issue, more than 700,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the government to prohibit people from applying for asylums in Korea and expel the rest of them. On top of that, there was a small demonstration against accepting refugees in Seoul to articulate the issue even more.

However, it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that this is how asylum seekers have been treated by all Koreans. Churches, Jeju residents, and others in South Korea have been providing food and accommodation for the asylum seekers. Park Ju-min, a lawmaker affiliated with Moon’s Democratic Party, proposed legislation to guarantee the asylum seekers at least a year of protection while their applications are processed.

South Korea is also in a very unique position as an asylum for international asylum seekers. Following the intense reaction caused by around 500 asylum seekers, one might assume that South Koreans are hostile towards the idea of accepting refugees in general. However, there are more than 30,000 North Korean refugees settled in South Korea, whose presence has been generally accepted and welcomed. This is mostly due to the mantra that South Korea is racially homogenous—a danil minjok (monoethnic nation)—which helps them see North Korean refugees in a more tolerant way than they see Yemenis who do not share the same history with them. The idea that Korea is a single-blooded nation was stressed in official school curriculum until UN urged it should be removed in 2007.


[1] Internationally displaced person—an internally displaced person is someone who is forced to flee his or her home but who remains within his or her country's borders

Se-Woong Koo, the publisher of the online magazine Korean Exposé, expressed his concern in an editorial in The New York Times. “None of this is surprising given South Korea’s education system. For decades, children, myself (Se-Woong Koo) included, were taught to believe that [South Korea] is a single-blooded nation. This myth of racial purity was promoted to foster national unity.” “After all, if we counted the Yemenis who have applied for asylum here going back to the end of last year, we're only really talking about 1,000 people here. I really wonder what it means if South Korea cannot accommodate such a small number of people who are seeking help. If it does not, it tells us a lot about the state of this country.”, he added during an interview with PRI.

How did other countries (ex. Germany) cope with similar issues in the past? What does it tell us?

Germany was one of the EU nations that largely accepted refugees, especially from Syria and Iraq. However, the immigrants led to big trouble during 2015/2016 New Year’s Eve celebration in Cologne, Germany. For all of Germany, police estimated in a document leaked in 2016 that 1,200 women were sexually assaulted and at least 2,000 men were involved, often acting in groups. It had been reported that half of the 120 outstanding suspects had been in Germany for less than a year, most of them from North Africa.

An emergency EU meeting followed after the assaults and EU governments made statements concerning the attacks. Norway had set sex education mandatory for all asylum seekers and in Germany, too, the government decided to focus its integration courses on cultural values, including learning equality of the sexes and sexual health.

On the other hand, Vox reported that violent crime did increase in Germany during the initial influx of migrants, however that rate is now on the decline. More importantly, the study said migrants from war zones were much less likely than other migrants to commit violent crimes. The study also showed migrant crimes were more likely to be reported or [1]cherry-picked by the media. It’s important to note the lack of integration courses that currently exists in Korea and what the government can learn from other countries’

South Korea found itself amidst a world where globalization and harmony are stressed as a major key to integration and interaction worldwide. Jeju is dubbed an “Island of World Peace” by Korea itself. It remains an important question whether Jeju island and the government will be able to demonstrate world peace by both accepting homeless asylum seekers and protecting the citizens’ rights.

[1]selectively choose from what is available. The act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position. (Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College)


Lastly, Yemen was originally known as Arabia Felix, Latin for "happy" or "fortunate” due to its fertile land. (Brian Whitaker, The Guardian) However, today, Yemen is scarred by the continuing aftermath of war. Our thoughts are with the victims of the Yemeni crisis at this difficult time and we hope the nation quickly regain peace and harmony that once existed in the country.

Ryu Seoyeon  soeryu00@gmail.com

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