Jeju authorities provide humanitarian assistance to Yemeni refugee applicants

Posted on : 2018-06-20 17:12 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Experts call for South Korea to take international responsibility as advanced nation
 Jeju correspondent)
Jeju correspondent)

Jeju agencies held a joint press conference on June 19 to announce measures in response to the growing social issue of Yemeni refugees on the island.

The agencies stated plans for a humanitarian approach to the issue of Yemeni nationals applying for recognized refugee status. Experts said the situation calls for South Korea to take international responsibility as an advanced nation, while also requiring carefully thought-out intermediate and long-term measures in the interests of social integration.

In a press conference convened at Jeju Provincial Office that morning, Jeju vice governor for political affairs Ahn Dong-woo, Jeju Office of Immigration chief Kim Do-gyun, and Jeju Policy Agency foreign affairs division chief Jang Han-ju announced plans for a joint humanitarian response to South Korea’s first-ever large-scale international refugee crisis, along with the commitment to the safety of the island’s residents.

Yemeni asylum seekers talk to Jeju residents looking to hire extra work hands at the Jeju Office of Immigration on June 18. (Huh Ho-joon
Yemeni asylum seekers talk to Jeju residents looking to hire extra work hands at the Jeju Office of Immigration on June 18. (Huh Ho-joon

In consideration of the situation faced by the Yemeni refugee applicants, the Ministry of Justice has permitted them to seek employment on humanitarian grounds. While applicants ordinarily must wait six months before they are able to work, the permissions allow the Yemeni applicants to look for jobs sooner. The ministry also plans to conduct refugee reviews for the applications in accordance with the Refugee Convention and Refugee Act.

While the Yemeni refugees have been barred from traveling to the mainland since Apr. 30, the ministry said it plans to consider lifting the restrictions on humanitarian grounds for refugees who are sick, pregnant, or accompanied by small children. The ministry has previously allowed a total of five refugees to travel to the mainland, including some with infants. But with visa-free entry disallowed for Yemeni refugees as of June 1, no additional refugees are currently able to enter South Korea.

Jeju Province has worked with volunteer groups to provide assistance to those facing difficulties due to being unable to find work. In particular, it plans to actively support those in need of housing, as well as surgery, hospitalization, and other urgent medical care. To do this, the province plans to draw on its reserve funds. It is also planning to establish institutional safeguards to prevent future cases of the visa-free system for tourism resulting in a sudden influx of refugees. In response to resident concerns about the refugees, local police plan to intensify their patrolling of entertainment districts and areas where refugee applicants’ residences are located.

But no basic livelihood support has been provided to date for the refugees. In the June 19 press conference, Kim Do-gyun dismissed as false claims on social media that 1.38 million won (US$1,240) in support is being provided per refugee.

“The Justice Ministry’s yearly budget for refugees is only 800 million won (US$721,000),” he explained.

“Livelihood support is decided on a case-by-case review basis, and no support money whatsoever has yet been provided to Yemeni nationals staying on Jeju Island,” he added.

In response to the announced measures, Jeju Peace and Human Rights Institute Wat director Shin Kang-hyeop said, “It was good that they provided a clear explanation on the baseless rumors surrounding refugees.”

“But as the agency with all the authority in terms of permitting refugees’ employment, directing sojourns, and restricting mainland travel, the Ministry of Justice needs to take more proactive humanitarian steps,” he added.

“We need measures to prevent the Yemenis from being despised and smeared as criminals.”

With the Yemeni refugees representing a different culture and language, support is also urgently needed for their adjustment while staying on Jeju Island. Employment presentations held on June 14 and 18 by the Jeju Office of Immigration respectively led to 270 and 131 people finding jobs. But around 40 of the Yemenis who found work on June 14 subsequently quit and returned to the second presentation – having no past experience working on fishing boats or at fisheries.

“In the short term, we need to keep the review times as short as possible so the Yemeni refugee applicants will be able to make a decision on what to do after the review is over,” said Kim Seong-in, head of the Refugee Network’s Jeju countermeasures committee.

“There needs to be an active interest in how Jeju protects and supports refugees as South Korea’s most internationally open society,” he added.

The situation also appears poised to force South Korea to begin seriously considering the refugee issue now that it has been recognized as an advanced nation.

“Even after the refugee situation on Jeju is resolved, the refugee issue is going to keep coming up in South Korea,” Kim Seong-in said.

“After this situation, we’re going to need a practical system for supporting and accommodating refugees at the central government level,” he suggested.

Since the 2015 eruption of civil war in Yemen, 549 Yemeni nationals have arrived on Jeju Island via Malaysia; 519 of them have applied for official refugee status. A total of 486 are currently remaining on the island as they await recognitions, not including those who have returned to Yemen or moved on to other countries.

According to the Ministry of Justice, the Yemenis on Jeju were among a total of 7,737 foreign nationals who applied for refugee status in South Korea between January and May 2018, representing a 132 percent increase from the 3,337 applicants over the same period in 2017.

By Huh Ho-joon, Jeju correspondent

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