South Korea: A new beacon for refugees
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South Korea: A new beacon for refugees

Accustomed to North Korea escapees, South Korea enacts law to aid refugees writes Steven Borowiec for Asia Sentinel

Near South Korea’s main international airport, the national government is constructing a type of building never seen before in this country — a large complex capable of accommodating more than 1,000 refugee applicants.

As South Korea becomes more developed and better-known, with its TV shows and pop music appreciated around the world, the country is receiving more refugee applicants, and the government is still figuring out how to handle them. South Korea also receives many escapees from North Korea — more than 1,000 per year in the past, which complicates relations with Pyongyang and Beijing.



Between 1994 and 2003, South Korea received only 251 refugee applications from non-North Koreans. That number jumped to 1,143 in 2012 — with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal being the three most common countries of origin. A fairly low portion of those applicants is being accepted: Between 1994 and 2003, 14 were accepted; 60 applications were successful in 2012. In contrast, fewer North Koreans are arriving in Seoul nowadays. After increasing steadily for years, the number of defectors went down sharply in 2012, the lowest level in seven years, believed to be because leader Kim Jong Un has tightened border security.

As a country that thinks of itself as ethnically homogeneous, South Korea doesn’t have a strong culture of welcoming outsiders, but as a developed power, it has signed international agreements and enacted its own law that promises fair treatment for refugees and acceptance of applicants deemed to be deserving.

South Korea became the first country in East Asia to enact its own refugee law when last year it passed its Refugee Act, which took effect July 1. The act details the process for refugee status application and processing, as well as criteria for acceptance. It stipulates the provision of assistance for applicants, including translation services. The law was enacted partly in response to pressure from civic groups who argued that refugee applicants did not have a fair chance to make their case for staying in South Korea, often lacking consultation on how to navigate the country’s legal system.

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