A Yemeni refugee shows Hankyoreh reporters a video of his hometown being bombed on his mobile phone (left). On the right is a citizens’ petition to the Blue House calling for the revocation of refugee applications.
Calls to deport Yemeni refugees on Jeju Island are intensifying two months into a large-scale influx of people fleeing the war-torn nation
With five days of its posting, a Blue House citizens’ petition calling to revoke refugee application permits for the refugees had over 220,000 signatures as of 4 pm on June 18. Another Blue House petition with similar content was posted on June 17 but subsequently deleted for “false and defamatory content.”
How did the Yemeni refugees end up on Jeju Island? In 2015, a civil war broke out in Yemen between Sunni government forces and Shia-led Houthi rebels. According to the UN Refugee Agency, over 280,000 Yemeni refugees had fled the country as of Nov. 2017. In April, the UN referred to the civil war as the year’s “worst humanitarian crisis.”
Initially, some of the refugees began traveling to Malaysia, where they would be allowed to enter without visas. But after extensions to their stay period were disallowed, many were forced onward to Jeju Island, which also allowed visa-free entry. Prior to a June 1 Ministry of Foreign Affairs measure disallowing visa-free entry from Yemen, Yemeni nationals had been eligible to stay on the island for up to 30 days without a visa. The Yemenis’ arrival on Jeju was also boosted by the emergence of low-cost direct flights late last year between Kuala Lumpur and the island. Of the 561 Yemenis who have entered Jeju Island this year, 519 have applied for refugee status.
As news spread through press reports, calls for the refugees’ expulsion intensified. In addition to overt hostility toward Muslims, most of the arguments have claimed the Yemenis are “fake refugees” who have “come to take away low-wage jobs.” Twitter and Facebook messages have warned against “accepting terrorists”; hate speech messages have blamed the arrivals on the current administration’s human rights policy focus and warned of Muslims “coming to kill your sons and rape your daughters.”
Some Christian groups have claimed that the Yemenis are “not refugees, but representatives of far-right Islam” and called to “stop them from coming here to prevent Islam from spreading.”
With most of the refugee applicants being young males in their late teens to late twenties, messages have branded them as “fake refugees” coming “to make money in South Korea.” The posters have also taken issue with the administration granting special employment permits to Yemeni nationals despite existing regulations preventing refugee applications from working for the first six months after beginning their sojourn.
So many young people are among the Yemeni refugees because they are often the first family members to leave Yemen to avoid conscription; the reason they have been granted special employment permits has to do with their large numbers, which could cause long review times amid a shortage of relief items. With so little food available for them, the Yemenis face difficulties surviving in an unfamiliar land solely through support from organizations and individuals. The areas where permits have been granted are short-handed fields including restaurants, fishing boats and fisheries, and farming.
Human rights groups assisting refugees
Human rights groups that have been assisting refugees said misunderstandings have only flourished amid the Ministry of Justice’s failure to respond to anti-Muslim hate speech and reporting. In a joint statement issued on June 9, the groups criticized the ministry’s decision to disallow visa-free entry to Yemeni nationals “without an objective review of the circumstances or presentation of a basic alternative” as “a clear violation of the values in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Refugee Convention.”
On June 1, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) urged the administration to take pan-governmental action, including swift reviews and residential support during the review period.
Many members of the public have been appealing for support for the Yemeni refugees. “There’s no real difference between our devastation after the Korean War and the articles written about the situation in Yemen in 2017,” wrote one petitioner in a June 16 message calling for support on the Blue House national petition bulletin board.
“The refugees are just like us,” the petitioner added.
Meanwhile, messages on Twitter and other social media lamented reports that over 200,000 people had signed the Blue House petition calling for the refugees’ expulsion.
“It’s shocking that so many people utterly disregard the suffering of others,” one user wrote, while another called the report “terribly sad news.”
Jeju civic groups and residents continue helping the refugees. A Facebook group called “Jeju’s Yemeni refugees” has maintained ongoing information about places providing relief goods supplied for the refugees by residents, as well as free healthcare service hours.
“We will never forget this [support],” said one Yemeni in an interview with the site Korea Exposé.
By Park Soo-jin, staff reporter
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