South Korea is ill-prepared for a refugee crisis

Moon Jae-in’s response to an influx of Yemeni asylum seekers is satisfying no one

Hugh Shin

International relations, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

22 November 2018

Asylum seekers have landed in South Korea, and along with them, the rise of a ‘two-faced’ policy that fails to hold water, Hugh S Shin writes.

Earlier this year, more than 550 Yemeni asylum seekers flowed into the South Korean resort island of Jeju and applied for refugee status. This massive and unexpected influx has triggered an intense debate over the country’s responsibility to accept asylum seekers.

Like in other countries experiencing mass refugee inflows, the South Korean public is sharply divided into two groups: those who argue that their country should not accept the refugee applicants as they may cause severe social and economic problems, and those who urge the government to welcome the asylum seekers and guarantee their rights. And it appears that the former vastly outnumbers the latter.

Amid the deepening anti-refugee sentiments, the South Korean government has taken several measures: excluding Yemen from the list of countries allowed visa-free access to Jeju Island, keeping Yemeni asylum seekers from leaving the island, giving them special work permits, and reducing the time taken for the refugee screening process.

All this seems to be satisfying no one. Refugee advocates think that the government’s responses are far removed from the moral purpose of protecting the Yemeni asylum seekers. They are particularly disappointed with the decision to prohibit refugee applicants from leaving the island and entering the South Korean mainland.

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Opponents of accepting refugees, on the other hand, claim that their government intends to accept ‘fake refugees’ while neglecting its primary job of ensuring the safety and welfare of its citizens. They criticise the government’s responses for being weak and amateurish, neither deterring asylum seekers from disturbing the social order, nor preventing further refugee inflows.

The Yemeni refugees are also unhappy. Most of them see the government’s measures as only piecemeal, depriving them of their basic rights and needs. Very few are optimistic about their chances to gain asylum in the country.

Indeed, South Korea’s approach to the refugee problem is ambiguous. It appears that the government has no intention to deport the asylum seekers but at the same time is unwilling to embrace them. It claims to advocate and be willing to comply with international obligations toward refugees, yet its refugee policy is largely focused on deterring and detaining them.

Some might say that the South Korean government is deliberately implementing an ambivalent refugee policy to handle the issue more carefully. They are only half-right. While it is true that the government is maintaining strategic ambiguity, its purpose is not to handle the issue carefully.

Then for what purpose is the government adhering to such a ‘Janus-faced’ policy?

Among many answers, whoever designed the refugee policy seems less interested in managing the problem itself, but rather in mollifying public anxiety about refugees and avoiding international criticism. For this, the Moon Jae-in administration is responsible. It is the administration’s inordinate obsession with its self-created image of ‘pro-ordinary people’ and ‘human rights defender’ that has instigated refugee policymakers to cling to misguided priorities.

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It is perhaps understandable that the Blue House wants to avoid taking a clear stance on the refugee problem – doing so could damage either its domestic popularity or international reputation. But the government is fooling itself if it thinks that adopting an equivocal policy means it can avoid the tough decisions. Even more disappointing is the fact that the Moon administration seems not to understand the impact and potential consequences of refugee inflows, such as potential social conflicts.

Political leaders in Seoul must take the issue more seriously. According to data released by the Ministry of Justice, the number of refugee applicants seeking asylum in South Korea has been increasing dramatically. In 2015, about 5,700 asylum seekers applied for refugee status in the country – that number almost doubled to 9,942 in 2017. The refugee pressure, like it or not, is very likely to further increase in the years ahead.

South Korea, as a member state of the UN Refugee Convention and a widely recognised middle power, is obliged to provide shelter for refugees whose lives are in immediate danger, and at the same time, must ensure the safety and welfare of its people are not threatened by the inflow of refugees.

So what should South Korea do about it?

First, it must redefine its refugee policy objectives. Preserving public approval ratings and international reputation is an important consideration, but not the ultimate goal of its refugee policy. Instead, it should aim to manage the rapidly increasing inflow of refugees and prevent the issue from spilling over into other security issues.

Secondly, Seoul must acknowledge that the refugee problem is a transnational security challenge that requires international cooperation. Many people talk about the need to improve the nation’s refugee law regime and screening process, but only a few of them realise such improvements won’t make much difference unless the government properly addresses the fundamental causes of the issue. This requires active cooperation with other countries, multilateral organisations and even private actors.

Perhaps the Moon administration finds it so hard to throw itself into the refugee issue because it is so preoccupied with the North Korean one. But if the administration continues to stick with the status quo and hesitate to take corrective action, then it will miss the opportunity to nip the problem in the bud.

This piece is published in partnership with The Monsoon Project, the student-run academic blog at The Australian National University.

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