South Korea isn’t pulling its weight when it comes to refugee resettlement
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South Korea isn’t pulling its weight when it comes to refugee resettlement

IN MANY ways, on paper South Korea looks impressive in terms of its support and protection available to refugees.

They have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, have enacted domestic refugee legislation in July 2013, have a refugee resettlement programme (albeit still in a pilot phase), and also a shiny new reception centre. In comparison to many other countries in the region, South Korea appears to be leaps and bounds ahead. However, scratch just below the surface and the country does not come out faring so well.

On July 24, 2017, a group of 23 Myanmar refugees from camps on the Thai-Burma border arrived in South Korea to start a new life. This group of people arrived via South Korea’s resettlement programme that commenced in late 2015, currently operating as part of a three-year government-led pilot. This initiative by the government is both heartening and promising. Giving refugees a new life in a new country where they can live in safety and dignity is an incredibly positive move and should be applauded. They will now have the opportunity to study, work, freely practice their religion, share their culture, travel and settle into a new life.

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Afghan migrants living in Greece take part in a protest demanding rights as refugees fleeing war, outside the Migration Ministry in Athens, Greece, on Aug 22, 2017. Source: Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis

However, as an outsider looking in, it appears that South Korea is operating a refugee protection system with two very distinct entrances and tracks. The first way – via the United Nations resettlement programme – is well managed and provides the entrants with all the necessities they need for a new life. Their accommodation, healthcare concerns, education, language needs and employment potential have all been taken into consideration.

What must be remembered, however, is that refugee resettlement is only available to a very limited number of people worldwide each year. In fact, in 2016, there were a total of 189, 300 people resettled globally, the majority of these making their way to the United States, Canada and Australia. With global displacement levels sitting at around 65 million people, this means that less than one percent of the world’s refugee population will ever have access to this durable solution. Of this figure above, South Korea took a grand total of 79 people between 2015 and 2017. Whilst this is an amazing opportunity and life-changing opportunity for a few select people, it remains only a tiny number of those in need.

Juxtaposed to with an organised resettlement programme is the process for other refugees that claim asylum after arriving in South Korea. In 2016, only 1.54 percent of all applicants were granted asylum by South Korea. From 1994 until April 30, 2014, South Korea’s total refugee recognition rate stood at 3.9 percent.

In fact, there are currently only 694 recognised refugees residing in South Korea as at April  30, 2017.

The low rates of refugee resettlement in South Korea is indicative of a much larger issue that permeates the entire, wealthy East Asian region. Whether it is a narrow interpretation of the law, xenophobia and racism, or the promotion of a mono-ethnic society – perhaps all of the above – the overall result is a deficit of protection for refugees.

The question remains what can South Korea do to change the two-track system, create a system of greater equality and fairness, and build their reputation as a true champion for human rights and refugee protection.

The underlying challenge remains changing the mindset of the general public to better understand that refugees are not a burden to society but rather can contribute economically. The prime example of the agency and resilience of refugees in South Korea is Yiombi Thona. The author of several books, a university professor and well-respected human rights advocate, Yiombi is a shining example of the contributions that refugees can make. It should be highlighted that he is not a miracle nor is he special.

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He is just one example of one person that has fled persecution and made another country his home. When people realise that all refugees can be like Yiombi then only then will public opinion begin to change and with it the restrictive laws and policies.

In the short-term, there are two very tangible ways that South Korea can continue to support and protect refugees that require international protection. The first way is to continue and expand the pilot refugee resettlement programme. Expansion should occur not just in terms of overall numbers (which, of course, be welcomed) but also in terms of where refugees come from. This includes other urban centres in Asia such as Jakarta, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

Secondly, South Korea should look at a number of other creative mechanisms to allow refugees to enter the country. This can include entry via the labour market and also via student visas. It is well known that these decisions are not easy and nor are the logistical and cost implications of such decisions. However, they are definitely not insurmountable.


Rohingya refugees climb down a hill as it rains at a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh September 19, 2017. Source: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

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As governments around the world are gearing up to enter negotiations on the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact on Migration, South Korea has a unique window of opportunity to showcase their commitment to refugee protection. As refugee issues become a topic of conversation by all governments across the globe during 2018, the country has the chance to stand up and be a leader both on the regional and international stage. Korea can show their neighbours both near and far that they are a country that is seriously committed to refugee protection.

South Korea is so close to being a shining example that can be held up in the international arena as a model country for human rights for refugees. They have everything on paper and are making strides towards even greater advancements.

With the help of organisations such as the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network – a 300 strong coalition of lawyers, academics and rights practitioners covering the entire Asia Pacific region – the South Korean government can continue to improve its systems and laws.

Only then can South Korea truly be considered as a champion for refugee protection.

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