This year, there have been more than 500 refugee applicants who came to Jeju Island. The majority of these people are from Yemen and Egypt. Since their arrival, there have been ghost stories spreading about refugees in Jeju Island, leading to people having negative perceptions of refugees. On the other hand, some people argue that Korea should accept refugees as members of Korean society. Starting in Jeju Island, the refugee problem has become a serious issue throughout the South Korean population as a whole. In this situation, on Sept. 16, a few rallies regarding the refugee issue were held at Gwanghwamun in Seoul. The Argus visited both rallies held in the same place and heard their voices.
Refugee Act: A law that contains the status and treatment of refugees
Korea has received refugee applicants since 1994. Because the Refugee Act was enforced in 2016, refugee application offices were opened at ports of entry and departure; the applications can be made directly at the counter. The refugee screening process consists of three steps. A foreigner who wants to be recognized as a refugee submits documents to be referred to the examination of the director of the Korea Immigration Service (KIS). After the interview is conducted, the head of the KIS decides on the refugee recognition examination. If recognized as a refugee, that person can receive some aid such as basic living support and job training. In addition, a refugee can apply for a work visa from six months after the initial application.
Status of refugees in Korea
A total of 32,733 cases of cumulative refugee applications were received from 1994 to 2017
A total of 792 people have been granted refugee status from 1994 to 2017
A total of 9,942 refugee applications received nationwide in 2017
A total of 121 people who were granted refugee status during 2017 (refugee approval rate of 1.51%)
Until 2017, people who were applying for refugee status were from Pakistan, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, and Syria, in order.
The scene of the supporting rally
When the reporters arrived at Gwanghwamun Station around 1:40 p.m., the reporters saw some signs and police officers at the station. Despite the rainy weather, Gwanghwamun was packed with people holding placards for refugees long before 2 p.m., the scheduled start time. A large group of people from various cultures were sitting together to take part in the demonstration. The sixth rally, titled “Day of Action with Refugees,” had the subject of reforming the Refugee Act and opposition to hatred of refugees.
Following the host's guidance, the rally began with participants shouting “Welcome refugees” in Arabic. A silent tribute was also given to the refugees who died in a recent accident, as well as for Syrian refugees who lost their lives trying to escape from their civil war.
The gathering grew in size as the rally progressed. Among the people, one group of foreign men stood out. The reporters listened to a man with a particularly nonchalant look on his face.
He said, “I came with my friends from Egypt. I visited various organizations and government offices in Korea to gain the refugee status, but I was ignored by them and just kicked out. That is why we came to a rally that supported refugees today.” When asked by the reporter about what kind of life he would like to lead, he said, “I have no plans in the future because I am hopeless. All I just want to do is not to be kicked out of Korea.”
After finishing a brief interview with him, the reporters looked around. Many foreigners were wearing signs with statements such as “Welcome refugees” and “I oppose racism.” In particular, one group holding a sign was a family with a young child, and there was also a refugee who shed tears as she watched a video showing the people who were in hunger and had lost their family members due to the terrible civil war in her home country.
There were many Koreans who were in favor of accepting refugees at the rally, and the reporters wondered what they thought. So, the reporters talked to Choi Young-jun, a Korean who was watching the rally in the rear of the group.
He said, “I do not think the minimum wage or youth unemployment problem was caused by refugees, and it is not right for some people to use them as scapegoats. We should look for ways to cooperate with each other. We must find a way to live peacefully. However, these days, it seems very exclusive to drive out refugees to protect Koreans."
The scene of the opposing rally
At the same time, on the opposite side, opponents also raised their voice while clamoring for the abolition of the refugee law and dissenting about accepting refugees. They put up a slogan which said “I am a citizen of South Korea. The nation comes first. The nation wants safety,” on the electric board and made a speech in support.
Participants of the opposition rally shouted several times toward those in support of refugees, and they shook a picket sign with “Fake Refugees Get Out” on it, meaning that several foreigners disguised as refugees and came to Korea for earning money.
A woman in her seventies who was participating in the rally said with anger, “I cannot understand why the government helps foreigners although there are many poor people in Korea. I am dumbfounded to hear that the government finds refugees’ jobs in such a situation that we have today in our country where young people have difficulty in seeking their own jobs.”
After a while, a woman in her thirties who was distributing printed materials related to opposing refugees, approached the reporters. She showed the materials filled with negative contents about refugees and spoke her mind about them. “I have heard that some Muslims carry out bad customs like early marriage. As one child’s mother, I cannot help worrying about that. In addition, I think we are threatened in the financial aspect, because the government gives refugees monetary support.” After finishing the short interview, the reporters looked around the rally. There were many parents and grandparents who brought their children, mainly for the opposition. As well, there were quite a few young people besides middle-aged people. A youth organization expressed their thoughts in a speech, and many young people sympathized with the speech.
A man in his twenties who hovered around the scene of the rally, holding pickets, introduced himself. “I am an ordinary person who works in a factory.” According to him, he wants taxes to be used for poor Koreans, but the nation’s taxes are being wasted because of supporting refugees. As well, he added, “Working in the factory, I psychologically feel threatened about my job due to refugees.”
The reporters approached a middle-aged man who was watching the rally in the distance and asked his opinion about the refugees rally. He answered, “I think to focus on protecting the nation is important rather than concentrating on dissenting about refugees. Because this rally should be helpful to make a wholesome society, not representing an aversion to refugees.”
Marching and confrontation between the two groups
At around 4 p.m., both groups finished the rally and prepared to march. At the point of starting the march, police were lined up in the street and participants of the opposing rally first marched toward Namdaemun, the No.1 national treasure of Korea. Participants in support of refugees who saw this parade came into the street and ranted at opponents. At that moment, a shoving match arose and both sides appeared flush with anger. Meanwhile, the police maneuvered vehicles to prevent dangerous conflicts from occurring.
When participants of opposing rally shouted “Islam out, Fake refugees out” continuously toward those in support, a speaker who supports refugees said that the opposition was distorting the facts about Islam, to the extreme. The speaker added that accepting refugees will not be a problem on the ground in that more than 150,000 Muslims are already living in Korea.
After a little while, pro-refugee participants marched about 2 kilometers through the streets toward the entrance of the Blue House. They attached Post-its filled with wishes supporting refugees on the large banner. Holding this, they marched on. Some people often waved to the reporters with a little smile. Although the rally progressed for a long time, the figures of passionate participants glimmered in the reporters’ eyes.
Among foreign tourists who passed the rally scene, Daniella who came from Germany said, “Germany also had many conflicts and social problems related to refugees in the beginning. Nevertheless we now found the compromise, and many people started opening their mind about refugees.”
Up to the present, Korea has not found the compromise. Everyone should make efforts to understand each other and harmonize in society, rather than leaning too much towards one direction.
By Kim Tae-young and Jang Yu-jin
Staff Reporters of National Section