10 Years since legislation of Refugee Act: We ask the Ministry of Justice to take full responsibility for protection of refugees.
2022 is the 10th anniversary of legislation of Korean Refugee Act and the 30th year since Refugee Convention took effect in Korea, and when the number of refugees across the world exceeded 100 million for the first time in history. This is certainly the moment when global solidarity for peace is imperative. Han Dong Hoon, who recently took office as the new head of the Ministry of Justice that presides over refugee policy, mentioned foundation of ‘Immigration Agency’ as one of his agenda. He implied existing policies regarding ‘foreigners who enter and depart from the country’ are to be transformed into ‘immigration’ policies. We need to closely follow what specific measures will be included in new policies, but the fact that he at least spoke about important issue is something to be appreciated positively. Policies implemented by new immigration agency should not regard immigrants and refugees as illegal or unacceptable but as those to be welcomed openly by the Korean government. Besides, new immigration policies should certainly be designed to protect refugees who have been victims of human rights abuse. However, today, 30 years after the Ministry of Justice signed Refugee Convention in 1992, what is the current state of refugee system in Korea?
It is busy sending back refugees who barely made it here after much suffering and difficulties even before they get a chance to place their feet in the country; it directs haphazard screening of refugee application and revokes residence status. Riding on the public antagonism against refugees who came to escape civil war, it even continues to pursue revision of Refugee Act in a way that restricts refugee right to apply for asylum. Even after asylum is granted, a number of challenges are still ahead for refugees to settle in the society. Livelihood of humanitarian sojourners and refugee applicants is always at risk. Government officials are not shy from violating human rights such as fabricating refugee interviews and using semi torturing gear in detention centers. We strongly urge the Ministry of Justice to fully recognize what has been constantly happening as described in the following:
Refugees are still being barred from entry and turned away. From late last year throughout this year refugee applicants from Sudan, Myanmar, Ethiopia and Haiti who are at higher risk of persecution due to internal conflicts in their countries increasingly had to see their applications denied refugee status determination procedure at the port of entry and departure without valid reasons. Some of those whose refugee applications were denied refugee status determination procedure have been turned back to their countries and some were left and abandoned at the airport struggling for survival.
Refugee recognition rate is still at its worst. For the past five years Korea’s refugee recognition rate has averaged below 1%. In 2021 2,341 refugee applications were filed, of which only 32 were recognized as refugees during the initial application. And even out of 32, 25 were granted refugee status through family unification. (In addition, 24 were recognized as refugees during appeal and 16 through administrative litigation.) Korea’s refugee recognition rate is always at the bottom of G20 countries.
No efforts are made to help refugee settlement. ‘Refugee Committee designed to deliberate on the treatment of recognized refugees’ prescribed by Refugee Act enforcement decree article 22 has not held one single meeting so far. Korean Refugee Act lays down conditions of treatment for refugees in accordance with Refugee Convention. Yet, in fact, the Korean government does not have any mid to long-term refugee strategy, and cooperation between central and municipal governments and coordination among departments are almost non-existent. Refugees who try to make a living even by labor work cannot find any source of such information. Administrative obstacles alienate refugees from benefitting from basic income security. Even if there was a court ruling that would guarantee for recognized refugees the equal right to public rental housing as Korean nationals, nothing has changed in reality; that is, application for public housing by recognized refugees is not even accepted and they are being turned away. Likewise, lacking policies and system for humanitarian sojourners have not been addressed for 10 years.
Screening for refugee application is insufficient as well. The number of refugee screening officer prescribed by Refugee Act is only four, and the result of screening is classified. After 1-2 years of waiting (as of 2021, average time that took for refugee applicant to receive the result of their first application was 23.9 months) and a couple of interviews, what refugee applicants receive is a single page of non-recognition notice written in Korean. There is no reliable apparatus to prevent abuse and monitor whether screening is managed professionally and responsibly. Screening officers do not properly understand persecution inflicted on refugee applicants who are victims of gender violence and prejudice against LGBTQ. With absence of clear guidelines, screening officers arbitrarily suspect, judge and exclude applicants. During the whole process of refugee application from filling in the application form to screening, support for interpretation and translation and legal advice are not provided. Basic forms such as written record of interview and non-recognition notice are still only in Korean. Rights are often disregarded throughout the application procedure.
While they await the decision during long screening process, applicants’ livelihood is at stake. Immigration offices and foreigner support centers are supposed to assist applicants with income and housing. However, in 2021 only 43 applicants can receive income support for 3.7 months on average, and only 22 used Immigration offices and foreigner support centers for an average of 160 days. In case of reapplying for refugee status, if they stayed for over a year as a student or migrant worker, or their legal residence period is exceeded even by a single day, the Ministry of Justice is reluctant to grant residence status in an attempt to restrict refugee application. Once applicants are denied their legal status, most of them are blocked from legal path to receive subsidy, work permit and medical insurance. Moreover, since they have no ID, they are unable to acquire phone number, open bank account and use other daily facilities. Their right to life is threatened and managing a normal life is impossible.
There is no sign of improvement in administrative affairs that have been done arbitrarily behind closed doors. On March 30 and June 16 this year, Seoul High Court ruled that almost all guidelines for refugee screening, treatment and residence status management be opened. This decision was a blow to underhanded administrative management that enabled wielding unbridled authority over refugees. However, even after the court ruling, they still have not opened the latest guidelines, which makes refugee applicants blind to the important changes in refugee policies.
The Korean government has been using its refugee policy originally intended to save refugees simply as a vehicle to promote it as “very first in Asia” in international community. Along the way rights of refugees have been violated continuously. Now it is time to stop unjustly turning back people who came to escape persecution and responsibly do its part shared by other members in global community. We condemn government’s management of refugee system, which, despite its 10-year history, has failed to protect and expand citizenly life of refugees and is rather busy restricting, reducing and expelling refugees. Moreover, we expect the proposed establishment of immigration agency by the Ministry of Justice not to be a product of political calculation but to have been derived from the serious speculation about the role and the future task of the Korean government. We ask for the following:
- The Ministry of Justice should withdraw the proposed revision of Refugee Act and start making mid and long-term strategy for refugee system first.
- Refugee application is a right. The government should stop arbitrary denial of refugee status determination procedure and guarantee all refugees an opportunity to apply for refugee status.
- The Ministry of Justice should prepare measures to help refugees and humanitarian sojourners settle in Korean society.
- The Ministry of Justice should implement fair, transparent and professional screening of refugee application.
- Stop restricting residence status, deporting and detaining refugee applicants and secure their right to basic life.
Korean : https://nancen.org/2271
Translated by Jang Youjin