May 7, 2021

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writing, mostly, on contemporary issues of human rights, politics & social justice

South Korea’s Obligation to Refugees

Low refugee acceptance rate and recent ban shows a depressing lack of progress on fulfilling South Korea’s obligations to refugees. This suggests that the country has a long way to go.

There are tens of millions of forcibly displaced people worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. Such people, also termed persons-of-concern, include refugees, internally displaced people, returnees, stateless persons, and others of concern.

By the end of 2017, the population of persons-of-concern was some 71.4 million around the world, as per the data maintained by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR, established by the UN General Assembly in 1950, is mandated to lead and coordinate international action for the worldwide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems.

Among the 65.6 million persons-of-concern in 2016, there were nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom were under the age of 18, as per UNHCR. The number of refugees has increased by 5.4 percent in one year with the uptick in the number of the people of concern.

In the short span of just a few weeks in 2017, more than 600,000 people (Rohingya) from Myanmar fled to Bangladesh. This was the most rapid overflow since the massive refugee crises of the 1990s, as per UNHCR’s Global Report 2017. Likewise, other persons-of-concern were displaced last year fleeing war, violence, and persecution in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, South Sudan, and Syria, among other countries.

Global trends show that state violence, human rights violations, conflicts, disasters, and risks to human lives due to various circumstances are on the rise and consequently forcing thousands of people every day to flee their homes in search of safety and protection. This requires more resources to ensure their safety and safeguard their rights.

Aside from the limited capacity to safeguard their rights, the search for safety has also become more dangerous, as per the Global Appeal 2018–2019 issued by UNHCR.

Recently, some of the receiving states, which were somewhat impacted by refugee arrivals, have closed their borders. The premature return of refugees equally affects their sustainable safety. Similarly, the journeys in search of safety are full of risks, including life-threatening violence and exploitation, detention, and torture. Weak international cooperation has also eroded protection for those forced to flee.

As the global community has recently marked the 18th World Refugee Day (June 20), the states and the stakeholders should come forward to address the aforementioned challenges consisting of limited capacity and risky searches for safety for the growing population of persons-of-concern. On this international day, the world needs to send a message – the world supports and stands with refugees.

Since 2001, the world has been observing World Refugee Day after the UN General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution on December 3, 2000, to mark June 20 as such. The first year of celebrating the international day for refugees coincided with the year when South Korea recognized its first refugee.

In 1992, South Korea became a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and started accepting asylum seekers in 1994. However, the first asylum seeker was conferred the rights of citizenship only in 2010. He was an Ethiopian man who fled persecution in his homeland and arrived in South Korea in 2001. Still, South Korea stands among Asia’s few countries that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, and among the even fewer who have extended the rights of citizenship to refugees.

With the enactment of the Refugee Act in July 2013, South Korea has become the only Asian country that has a stand-alone refugee law clearly stipulating the rights and obligations of asylum seekers, those granted humanitarian status, and refugees, while also covering all major areas concerning the protection of those persons. In light of these facts, the country appears to be making impressive strides toward supporting and protecting existing refugees.

However, the refugee acceptance rate (3.9 percent from 1994 until April 30, 2014; 1.54 percent of total applicants in 2016; the status of refugee applications as illustrated in the figure below) is low.

In June, South Korea prohibited the entry of refuges from war-torn Yemen to Jeju Island by adding Yemen to the list of a small number of countries. For the tourism, the country has a provision for the visa-free entry to its Jeju island province from most of the countries.

The recent ban on the entry of Yemeni asylum-seekers came in a response to an online petition filed by more than 700,000 South Koreans, demanding the government to stop its visa-free policy for Yemen and to refuse asylum and deport the Yemenis.

The low refugee acceptance rate and the recent ban shows a depressing lack of progress on fulfilling South Korea’s international obligations related to refugees. This suggests that the country has a long way to go.

Some experts also link the implementation of the international obligation related to refugees with those fleeing North Korea to seek refuge in South Korea. They argue that it might be impossible for South Korea to manage a large pool of defectors, asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants from North Korea. In view of this context, the recent developments propelled by the Singapore Summit between the United States and North Korea also raise hope for the liberal implementation of South Korea’s commitment to refugee protection.

A version of this article was published by the Gwangju News Magazine in Gwangju, South Korea.