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With Refugees

[SERIES] Pro Se Refugee Litigation – A Story of Hope 2

How successful can refugee litigations without assistance from a lawyer be in South Korea? Quite unsure about the answer, Nancen volunteer Sang Ah and I supported Deo, a refugee from Burundi, with his litigation against the Refugee Status Refusal Decision he received from the Seoul Immigration Office. Currently, we are waiting for the result of his first trial. Following the first article of the Pro Se Refugee Litigation Series written by Sang Ah, I would like to write about what I felt while assisting Deo’s litigation and the story of what happened on the day of the trial. In the previous article, Sang Ah wrote in detail about Deo’s story as a refugee fearing persecution in his home country. I recommend you to read it for more information about Deo’s case.


The first counselling with Deo was difficult. I had to take time and ask him a lot of questions as there were too many things I could not grasp at first. I was curious about why he had to escape his country, why he did not have alternative routes, why they targeted him as their enemy, whether there is evidence for it, and the like. I can guess that Deo must have been exhausted as he was peppered with questions. In fact, I find it rude to demand others to explain their life experiences in a logical and coherent way as well as tell them to show proof for it. However, that is how the refugee system proceeds, and if I want to help him, I also had to think and talk accordingly: that is, to use the same violent language. I think that is what made this process hard for me at first.


After the first counselling session with Deo, I search the word “Burundi” on Google. Skimming the search results, I realized that I did not know anything about the country. I thought: “Is it right to help without any knowledge on the matter?” I got scared. I would have easily given up with the whole idea of supporting Deo right after the Google search if Nancen staffs and Sang Ah were not there with me. I took time doing some research on Burundi. While reading news articles and reports on the country, I thought about what Deo recounted during the counselling sessions. “Oh, it is because of these circumstances that Deo thought and felt that way!” I could then understand bit by bit what I heard during the counselling. Hundreds and thousands of people in Deo’s home country are dying, tortured, disappearing, and violently threatened. Deo had experienced on a daily basis danger and fear that I could never imagine as a person born and raised in South Korea. That is why I could not comprehend what Deo described about life in Burundi right away.


Regrettably, there was more to what I did not know. I was unaware about the Korea that Deo witnessed. Korea for Deo as a refugee was different from the Korea I knew as a citizen. The Korean refugee system is extremely exclusive as it seem as though it serves Koreans instead of foreigners. Even based on Deo’s case, we can easily see how the system is unfriendly: no proper information was provided on the application process, evidential materials could not be translated, and all notifications were sent in Korean. Just like that, they leave refugees on their own. They are basically expecting refugees to get through the process using their own best abilities. Do they even have the will to communicate? Or are they trying to treat refugees harshly so that they can leave this land? The Korea Deo knows is a colossal code. It is another battlefield. Through Deo, I learned about Burundi as well as my country.


For weeks, Sang Ah and I collected and linked pieces of information revealed through counsellings as part to draft a testimony. We researched Country of Origin Information (COI) on Burundi, one of an evidential material needed to understand and confirm the testimony. As Sang Ah had actually lived in Africa for a long time, she continuously interacted with Deo and translated relevant materials in English. Reading the 9-page testimony we wrote based on three counselling sessions, Deo said that he feels much more hopeful. The testimony expressed with clearance what Deo had wanted to tell. On the other hand, the refugee application that Deo wrote alone at the immigration office was only a paragraph long. For me, who had seen how it is not easy to be recognized as a refugee in Korea, I could not be as hopeful as Deo. Nonetheless, I could understand his joy. Deo also said he had never talked to a Korean for more than 10 minutes since he came to Korea. Until now, it must have been difficult for him to explain his life and may have felt hopeless for not being understood. How can a decision be seen as “fair” when it is not led by the effort to understand and be properly informed. Is it impossible for the refugee determination process to be a process that listens, understands, and helps refugees, and not a wall or a filter that sifts out ‘real refugees’ and ‘fake refugees’? This kind of assistance is needed because the system is not working properly.


Two days after submitting the pleading documents for Deo’s litigation, Sang Ah and I accompanied Deo on the day for his pleading at the court. The trial lasted for only 15 minutes. Although the given time was far too short to explain the long stories and complicated circumstances, Deo dedicated the last chance to talk thanking Nancen. Knowing how precious that last opportunity was, I felt over-gratified compared to the work I did. As we left the court after the trial, we thanked and encouraged each other.


At the same time, I thought about one refugee who was also at the same courtroom. He apparently came alone and his turn was after Deo’s. As he could not understand the instructions given and written in Korean, he asked when his turn would be to me as I was leaving the room. Since instructions for his trial was already given, I told him that he should hurry and take his seat on the court at that very moment. After entering the courtroom, he hurried to the reception desk just before his trial because he did not submit some kind of a receipt. For things that would have naturally proceeded for me, it was a mountain he had to climb every minute. In such process, how many refugees will miss opportunities and be frustrated? As refugees who have risked their lives and escaped persecution, receiving enough opportunity to vindicate their case is a basic right to them. And a “fair” system should mean that individual refugees—whether they have legal assistance or not—must have this right guaranteed as they proceed with the refugee status determination process. Refugees who have no legal representation like Deo, or those who are left to stand alone at the court without any help from civil organizations, should be able to have hope.


Now, as I am writing this essay, Deo and Nancen are waiting for the first trial announcement. There is a high possibility that even though Deo wins this trial, the Immigration Office will appeal to the higher court. What will this long fight leave us with? I sincerely wish that it is Hope.


Korean : https://nancen.org/2023

[SERIES] Pro Se Refugee Litigation – A Story of Hope 1 : https://nancen.org/2014


Written by: Han Na-hyun

Translation : Lee Sang-ah


ⓒ  The Refugee Art Project