Yeosu Detention Center Fire Tragedy Must Be Kept In Memory
Joint statement on the 15th anniversary of Yeosu Detention Center fire tragedy
This year is the 15th anniversary of the Yeosu Detention Center fire that happened on Feb.11, 2007. First of all, we pay tribute to ten people who passed away and hope the pain and agony of their families and survivors have been alleviated.
The tragic fire was an incident that had clearly revealed the real face of the Korean government’s immigration policy that enables arbitrary detention in the name of ‘protection,’ which eventually led to loss of life. The Korean authorities kept in detention those who did not commit crimes for 1 to 2 years even without a proper trial. Some of them could not leave the country because they did not receive overdue wages, and some of them were detained over 6 months because the Immigration Office mistakenly delayed their ID check. They were kept in custody in the name of ‘protection,’ but in reality no one protected their rights. They were even denied the primary fundamental right to their life. The Korean government put priority on preventing their escape over their right to safety. What is alarming is not that they were kept behind bars against their will as criminals are in prison but that the officers refused to open the door in the face of fire in fear of their escape.
15 years after the tragedy, how much change has been made in detention centers? As the recent ‘shrimp posture’ torture incident in the Hwaseong Detention Center shamefully demonstrates, nothing has been changed. Right after the incident the Ministry of Justice argued that such a restraining confinement was inevitable to protect the life of the detainee who had been subjected to torture. Their brazen claim that their actions were for the sake of protection of life is reminiscent of the Yeosu fire tragedy that put out innocent lives behind the locked doors.
Furthermore, the police and the Ministry of Justice put their focus on finding the cause of fire rather than on underlying circumstances for the tragedy and hurriedly wrapped up the investigation by charging one of the detainees with arson.
The same thing played on in the Hwaseong Detention Center case. The Ministry of Justice released cctv footage that shows the victim of ‘shrimp posture’ torture M was seemingly out of control, portraying him as a potential danger. It was intended to make him look like the cause of the dehumanizing restraint and solitary confinement while hiding the fact that they kept ignoring his consistent request for medication and proper treatment.
What followed up the incident is identical to what had happened after the Yeosu fire tragedy. In the wake of the fire, the Ministry of Justice treated the surviving victims as criminals. Those who suffered respiratory damage, after a simple treatment, were swiftly moved to and detained in Cheongju Detention Center. Some of them were forced to leave the country, and a small number of those who went on a hunger strike in protest were allowed temporary stay for treatment. Even those who were hospitalized under serious condition were handcuffed and freed only after civic groups filed a fierce complaint.
M, the torture victim in the Hwaseong Detention Center, whose human rights violation was admitted by the Ministry of Justice in early November, had to be subjected to detention for another three months. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea recommended in December his release from detention, but the Ministray did not even budge and had no awareness of M’s unjust situation. The Ministry only saw him as a foreigner to be deported. The Ministry rejected M’s request for temporary release twice on the basis that there is no humanitarian ground on which to consider M’s temporary release. Eventually the authorities reluctantly approved of his release only after civic groups’ strong protests and doctor’s opinion that M’s condition is serious.
However, measures required to prevent recurrence of such inhumane treatment are not likely to be put in place in time just as no substantial change was made in the wake of Yeosu fire tragedy. Despite civic groups’ protest against arbitrary detention behind bars and human rights abuse after the Yeosu fire tragedy, the Ministry’s priority was on fire prevention and reinforcing security. Civic groups’ demand for change in policies and systems for unregistered foreigners, which mainly centered on restriction and detention, was never heeded. It is very worrying that follow-up measures for the latest ‘shrimp posture’ torture incident might end in the same way. Already the Ministry is talking about introducing the use of additional physically restraining gear and deploying more guards at detention centers.
Yeosu fire tragedy was a reminder of a simple truth that even those without a valid visa are humans and thus they should be treated accordingly. 15 years have elapsed since, but we still wonder if the Korean society is abiding by this simple truth. It is deploring that one of the strong presidential candidates is flaunting a fake news that our health insurance finances are undermined by foreigners and the media is copying such a claim. And it is equally disappointing and even infuriating to see what Moon Jae-In administration has been doing in contrast to what they initially said that humans are first.
Even after 15 years it’s not late yet. In regard to human rights there are no country borders and racial differences. The society in which we desire to live is where nobody is arbitrarily detained. This is what we always should keep in mind as we remember the Yeosu fire tragedy today.
Participants of the National Joint Action to commemorate
the 15th anniversary of Yeosu Detention Center fire tragedy
Translation by You-jin Chang
press conference statement in Korean: http://nancen.org/2237