On December 3, 1992 South Korea ratified the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol Relating to the Status Refugees. The convention and protocol went into effect on March 3, 1993 and December 3, 1992 respectively. What this means is that South Korea now officially has the responsibility to protect refugees. December 10, 1993 was when the provisions regarding refugees were established and on July 1, 1994, South Korea started receiving asylum claims under the amended immigration law.
However, concerns about the insufficient protection of refugee rights due to the country’s immigration law’s focus on guarding the border and controlling foreign residents were voiced domestically and internationally. Many times was South Korea criticized for its low refugee acceptance rate and the unsatisfactory fulfillment of its role in the international community. The refugee admission process in South Korea lacks in speed, transparency and fairness, denies refugees the means to maintain a minimum living standard and denies even those approved the status to enjoy the rights stated in the convention①.
Back in 2004, the Bar Association for Democratic Society and the incorporated association, Refuge, were some of the few organizations that supported refugees in ROK. Through their report on the Survey of Human Rights of Foreign Refugees in Korea, discussion about the remedies for the conditions of refugees in South Korea was adopted as the topic in the National Assembly Human Rights Forum, then chaired by congresswoman Hwang Woo Yeo. Since 2006, the people who attended this forum formed a network that provided support for refugees and organized monthly meetings② in which activists and lawyers sought ways to legislate a refugee law. The Ministry of Justice also created the Law on Commission for Refugee Law with its then refugee department in September 2005 which became the groundwork for the Refugee Law. The product of these efforts was the creation of the bill on the Recognition and Treatment of Refugees. The bill was proposed in 2009 by the Local Bar Association of Seoul and that year on May 25, Hwang Woo Yeo also proposed it to the National Assembly. Hwang’s determination to finish the formation of the Refugee Law before the expiry of her term was reflected in her frequent visits to the Legislation and Judiciary Committee, interviews with expert committeemen and aides of the congressman’s office, and her continuous proposal to the Korean Bar Association. These efforts paid off on December 29, 2011 when the bill was finally passed by the National Assembly’s plenary session and the Refugee Law was legislated on February 10, 2012 as an independent human rights law. ③
The Ministry of Justice took great pride in the fact that South Korea was the first among all Asian countries that have signed the Refugee Convention to legislate and implement a law on the Recognition and Treatment of Refugees. Thus, it strove to spread the news of the achievement nationwide and worldwide. June of 2013, the ministry established a department for refugees and in July, the law was implemented. In September, the government finished the construction of the Immigration Reception Center and ROK was elected as the chair country of the UNHCR Executive Committee④. However, in the process of actually legislating the law, the bill went through several changes and the resulting law was embedded with substantial differences from its original form proposed by the civil society.⑤ Particular attention was given to the Application Filed at Ports of Entry and Departure (Article 6 of the Refugee Law) and section 5 of article 8 which outlines the instances where part of the screening procedure can be omitted. These concerns became a reality when the law went into effect.
At the entry and departure port, refugees, upon expressing their interest in applying for a refugee status, are subject to an initial screening process that determines the eligibility of the applicant to go through the official review. However, this process, in reality, was a mechanism to rob the applicants of their right to attend the official screening process. To make matters worse, no proper means for objection existed should they disagree to the final decision after the initial screening. Moreover, from 2014 which was the year Syrian refugees to South Korea were recognized as humanitarian status holders, problems regarding their unstable position and livelihood became an issue. The Network for Human Rights of Refugee published a report on a survey of domestic humanitarian status holders and on that of the refugee application procedure in the entry and departure port. This disclosed the problems of ROK’s treatment of refugees and ignited the emergence of several bills at the National Assembly between 2015 to 2016. These bills were about improving the Entry and Departure Port Law, enhancing treatment to humanitarian status holders, and strengthening the rights of applicants subject to refugee screening. ⑥ Such bills were ignored and put to the sidelines as the country became covered with political propaganda and the government legislated the Act on Counter-Terrorism for the Protection of Citizens and Public Security by presenting Syrian refugees as potential threats to South Koreans safety.
July 2018 was the 5th anniversary of the Refugee Law. However, this was also the month when the Yemeni refugees to Jeju Island sparked national controversy and anger. Using this, some congressmen tried to deteriorate the Refugee Law and even aimed for the complete abolishment of it. Bills on abolishment, deportation at administrative authority’s discretion, reduction of the allowed period for refugee review and suspension of aids for asylum seeker’s sustentation and education that were proposed all failed to understand the original rationale behind the establishment of the law and threatened its purpose and value. These bills are currently pending in the National Assembly⑦.
Taking advantage of the current situation, the Ministry of Justice started to push forward a bill that demands a thorough amendment of the Refugee Law. The following are what the bill argues for.
1) Certain refugee applicants (e.g. reapplicants), will not be given the chance for an official review and must go through the eligibility screening process. If found ineligible upon screening, rejection of the decision is not allowed and the applicant is subject to deportation. A new classification of “clearly ungrounded applications” will be created and applicants put to this category will also be denied the right to reject the decision and be deported. In other words, these changes will fundamentally block the chance for applicants to go through an official review.
2) The attempt to make exceptions to the deportation regulation is done in order to create more cases subject to deportation.
3) The incompliance to the attendance request twice will be considered that the applicant no longer pursues the refugee status application. Also, a new regulation was established as a ground for punishment for submitting false documents during the refugee review process to ensure the applicant’s cooperation to the whole process. Failure to comply will lead to the applicant’s disadvantage or lead to criminal punishment.
On the bright side, the bill touches on creating provisions that helps approved refugees adapt to the new environment by supporting employment. It also suggests the creation of regulations that support humanitarian status holders’ employment and increase opportunities of refugee applicants to work. These proposals seem to have improved from the former version. Nonetheless, there are several areas of concern when looking at the Prohibition of Expulsion or Return and assessing the fairness of refugee reviews. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea, the Korean Bar Association, and the Court have also expressed their concerns about the government’s proposal.
After the implementation of the Refugee Law, the tumultuous international landscape led to the increase on refugee applicants to ROK and its backlog of refugee reviews. In response, the Ministry of Justice has been focusing on finding ways to cut the influx of new refugee applicants rather than seeking ways to expand the human and physical capital that could improve the review system. In the face of the backlog issue the ministry from 2014 till the beginning of 2017 ordered a task force to conduct simplified versions of the official review. In order to assign more people to the simplified review, the qualifications for this track became more generous. By this, they were able to make more people take the simplified review and then reject a massive number of applicants within a short amount of time. People subject to this version of the review included those who provided application reasons such as chieftainship and cult which are known to be some of the most common reasons for applying and people accused of, on no legitimate basis, abusing the refugee law. The weak and unfair review system marked its peak when several refugee interviews were found to be manipulated and the interviewees’ rights, violated.
As people started to express worrisome opinions about the task force, the ministry started branding some refugee applicants including reapplicants as “abusive refugee applicants” and deprived them of their right to stay but suspended departure dates. Thus, these people arrived at an abnormal residential state where they were staying because they were not expelled but simultaneously heavily pressured to leave the country. The victims of the manipulated interview and Yemeni applicants have been taken away their ID cards and are waiting for the review for prolonged periods without any legal right to stay. However, in reality, there are no legal grounds for restricting their stay and ordering repatriation. The Ministry of Justice is currently trying to establish laws that will legitimize their illegal deeds. Such a law might fuel their negligence of the responsibility to provide refugees with a safe place to stay and the opportunity to undergo fair review processes. Holding up “speed” as its main goal, the government might also continue kicking out refugees and closing the door before them.
So how then can we get the Refugee Law back on track? Nancen (Refugee Rights Center in South Korea) have organized several activities with a heavy heart, feeling as if we are trying to break a rock by throwing eggs at it. How can the Refugee Law move forward again? NANCEN has carried out several small activities like hitting a rock with an egg, making. We are trying to frustrate the government's massive movement of the Refugee Law amendment standing before us like a huge rock, with our small events that are like eggs. We have hosted petitions and gathered signatures from citizens who shared our thoughts and some of these people even wrote a letter directly to the minister of the Ministry of Justice. We have also worked hard to spread messages like “Refugee application is a right”, “stop constructing borders within borders”, “no exception to the Prohibition of Expulsion or Return” and “a recall needed for the messed-up Refugee Law”. We spoke at lectures, sharing and debating about Korea’s Refugee Law and the current situation refugees are faced with. Several migrant human rights groups, the Union of Anti-Discrimination Law Legislation, and the Network for Human Rights of Minority and Refugees have reached out to us to together combat the malicious revision of the Refugee Law. Even till this moment, we are seeking ways to communicate with the government and the National Assembly through the Network for Human Rights of Refugees.
The beginning of this movement was small. We had only a handful of activists to discuss the subject. Now we have seen the growth of the movement as more and more people are talking about the issue and are showing the power of solidarity. Whenever I see the papers of signatures piled up on my desk, I feel grateful for the people who are supporting refugees. This is the reason why I believe the eggs hitting the rock will one day break the rock. Fortunately, the government's refugee bill remains as a draft and appears to be losing momentum with the legislative notice seeming remote. I earnestly hope that the Refugee Law that once boasted being the first in Asia preserves its value and continues to move forward.
Written by Kim Yeon Joo
Translated by Jun Sun Woo
Translation supervision by Im Han Joo
① Reasons for enacting the Refugee Law
② Predecessor of the Refugee Human Rights Network
③ Recitation from Lee Hoe Taek, 'The Implications and Challenges of the Enactment of the Refugee Law', Kim Jong Cheol Kim Jaw Won, 'Improvement of the Legislative Process of the Refugee Act and its Implications and Future Tasks'
④ Preface from ‘Exposition of the Refugee Law’, Korea Immigration Service
⑤ Recitation from Lee Hoe Taek, 'The Implications and Challenges of the Enactment of the Refugee Law', Kim Jong Cheol Kim Jaw Won, 'Improvement of the Legislative Process of the Refugee Act and its Implications and Future Tasks'
⑥ Reference from representative proposals of congresswoman Won Hye Young, congressman Hong Il Pyo, congressman Hong Ik Pyo, congressman Bak Myeong Jae, congresswoman Yi Jasmin
⑦ Reference from representative proposals of congressman Joe Gyeong Tae, congressman Yi Eon Joo, congressman Kin Jin Tae, congressman Gang Seok Ho, congressman Song Seok Jun, congressman Ham Jin Gyu
*NANCEN (The Refugee Rights Center) holds the copyright for this content. Distribution or commercial exploitation of the content without indication of the source and copyright holder is prohibited.