South Korea- A Haven for Refugees?

South Korea

Nine year old refugee, Mahmoud had fled the conflict in Syria to Egypt. At the tender age of nine, he was traumatized by the ordeal he had to face. But his life took a turn for the better with the resettlement program offering him a new life. Young Mahmoud said “I have travelled twice before in my life, but the last two times we travelled, we were escaping. This time I am going to live a new life.” The resettlement programs that nations adopt give refugees hope of a better future.

One of the youngest of these was the pilot program adopted by South Korea. South Korea received its first group of refugees as part of the pilot program in 2015. The UNHCR categorized 44 industrialized countries in the world as refugees receiving countries. South Korea is one of the receiving countries in Asia-Pacific. The main problem was that, despite being a recognized receiving country, South Korea had one of the lowest acceptance rates, accepting only 4.2% of the total applicants1. With an attempt at increasing this rate due to a burst in the number of refugees out of conflict zones, the number of asylum applications had increased by 85% in 2013, as South Korea attempted to increase its intake. However, the plans of the government had failed as the rate of acceptance could not keep up with the rate of application, and according to the Ministry of Justice in South Korea, the acceptance rate of refugees was 7.3% at the end of 2014.2 This was much lower than international standards.

But with the establishment of the resettlement program under the South Korea’s Refugee Act of 2013, a total of 30 refugees from Myanmar were accepted into South Korea, as part of a United Nations-led refugee resettlement program. The pilot project was established for a period of 3 years to clear the bottleneck that had developed under this Act. As part of the three-year pilot project, the government had successfully granted 86 Burmese refugees permanent resettlement in the country. It took in 22 refugees from Myanmar in 2015 and 34 more in 2016, which gave the country a major boost, and helped give the refugees a new home.

The beauty of this program is not just in the fact that you have a new roof over your head, but that you become a part of that society– the country isn’t just a safer shelter, but is a home. As a part of the South Korea program, the refugees were given the required training to learn some Korean through books and television shows to assist in their rapid integration into society wherein they were given Korean-language education and job training at foreign support centres for about six months after their arrival. The refugees were then granted F-2 visas, which would allow them to live and work in the country. The Myanmar refugees were provided with adequate living facilities in a Province, adjacent to the capital Seoul, as there was an existing Myanmar community in the area, which made it easier for them to fit in perfectly with their own kind.

These refugees had spent up to 19 years in Thailand’s camps, and the initial idea of moving to South Korea was met with a lot of resistance, as it meant leaving behind the only home they had known, for a country of unfamiliar people, language and weather, which becomes a very difficult aspect to accept.

Under the programme, candidates identified by UNHCR were screened by the South Korean government, which focused on finding refugees with strong potential and a willingness to integrate into South Korean society. Once the program had identified them as the candidates to resettle in South Korea, and once they had received the integrative training that was part of the program, knowing that they would liver a safer life with a guarantee of food, shelter and warmth, there was no hesitation to move to a new life.

The wars leading to constant destruction along with the ravaging poverty amongst the refugee community makes life very difficult. But, they can live like normal people in Korea. These struggling families finally had the chance to live ordinary lives, away from the running and hiding that becomes a lifestyle in conflict zones. They could finally send their children to good schools and hope for a better life for them.

The reason this is such an important program is that while it gives Korea the ability to take a step forward in sharing responsibility as a member of the international community, the refugees have been given the opportunity to start anew as members of Korean society.

It is a significant step for a country with a relatively short history of receiving and accepting refugees. Since 1994, when South Korea started to receive refugees who arrived spontaneously, some 13,000 people have sought asylum mostly from Pakistan, Egypt and China. South Korea is the second Asian country after Japan to become a refugee resettlement state and had planned to receive 60 more refugees until the pilot programme ended this year (2017).

While this program is a temporary solution, which only lasted for a period of 3 years, South Korea’s Justice Ministry had suggested turning the pilot project into a regular program to admit refugees for resettlement, as the nation saw it more desirable if the resettlement program were to take in a greater number of refugees from more countries.

This idea does seem to be a bright prospect for the improvement of the condition of refugee communities around the world, but, as of now, under the current scheme, the refugee resettlement is only available to a very limited number of people worldwide each year. Until the structure of the program is modified to take in more refugees from different nation, the root of the refugee crisis will never be tackled. It is very clear that while this program is a bright prototype, it cannot be established as the final procedure in the country. To understand why this is the case, we must look at the statistics where in 2016, while there were a total of 189, 300 people resettled globally, with a majority of these making their way to the United States, Canada and Australia, South Korea managed to take a grand total of 79 people between 2015 and 2017 under this program. While we cannot deny that the program is a life-changing opportunity for a few select people, it remains only a tiny number of those in need. So, the issue is that, with global displacement levels sitting at around 65 million people, less than one percent of the world’s refugee population will ever have access to this durable solution. On paper, South Korea looks impressive in terms of its support and protection available to refugees, but it is a difficult road that lies ahead for it to achieve full integration.

An important solution to this could be that the very same mechanism be continued and expanded to more communities around the world. But this expansion should occur not just in terms of overall numbers but also in terms of where refugees come from. South Korea could also use the labor market and student visas to achieve this. Only then can South Korea truly be considered as a champion for refugee protection.

-Contributed by Dylan Sharma

Picture Credits:

Most Popular

To Top
Please check the Pop-up.