Angolan family of asylum seekers allowed into S. Korea after 287 days at Incheon Intl. Airport

Posted on : 2019-10-14 17:43 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Appeals court ruling paves way for family to sojourn in Korea on temporary basis
An Angolan family of Congolese descent is permitted to enter South Korea on Oct. 11 after being trapped at Incheon International Airport for 287 days. (Kang Chang-kwang
An Angolan family of Congolese descent is permitted to enter South Korea on Oct. 11 after being trapped at Incheon International Airport for 287 days. (Kang Chang-kwang

As the doors open to the arrivals hall at Incheon International Airport, four shyly smiling children stepped hesitantly out. Nkuka Lulendo and his wife Bobette appeared a moment later.

“Lulendo!” “Hello!” Welcoming applause rang out from people waiting outside the entrance. The first person to run up to Lulendo was Rev. Hong Ju-min of Korean Diakonia, a human rights activist for refugees. As Hong embraced him, Lulendo began to weep. Standing by the railing at the arrivals hall, other activists stretched out a banner bearing the English words “Welcome Lulendo family!” In Korean, it continued, “We welcome the Lulendo refugee family’s escape from the airport and arrival in our arms.”

It took exactly 287 days. From their arrival at Incheon Airport on Dec. 28 of last year until their emergence into the departure lounge at 4 pm on Oct. 11, Lulendo, his wife, and their children had been eating and sleeping in a corner of the airport’s duty-free and transfer area. Angolans of Congolese descent, they came to South Korea to escape persecution of their people by the Angolan government.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Lulendo had been detained and tortured by the Angolan police, but South Korea’s immigration service didn’t even give them a chance to plead their case, assuming that they had no reason to claim refugee status. The Lulendos had come all the way to Korea to find a place to raise their children only to find themselves trapped in a new prison — Incheon International Airport.

But there were some Koreans willing to help out the Lulendos. While they were in the airport, a group of activists provided them with food and necessities. But it was just enough to keep them alive, the kind of supplies they might have received at a refugee camp. Without anywhere better to sleep, the family members camped out on couches that they pushed together in the hallway, and their four children, all younger than 10 years old, received little in the way of education for some nine months.

“Mrs. Lulendo had a really bad toothache, but she didn’t have access to any formal treatment and had to make do with painkillers,” said Choe Yun-do, editor of Duri Media and one of the people helping the Lulendos. When the family members were given a health checkup by a group called Doctors for Humanism, all of them were found to be in a critical state.

The family was finally able to escape the airport when a judge sympathized with their plight on Sept. 27. “It is possible to see the family as being desperate to flee the persecution of the Angolan government,” the Seoul High Court ruled in a lawsuit the family filed against the Incheon branch of the Korea Immigration Service, under the Ministry of Justice. By overturning the ruling of a district court that had rejected the family’s appeal, the high court paved the way for the family to receive a hearing for refugee status. Until the final decision is reached by the Supreme Court, therefore, the Lulendos are allowed to sojourn in Korea on a temporary basis.

“I want to send my children to school and have a job like other people. We’re grateful for the people who have helped us in Korea,” Mr. Lulendo said with a smile when he finally reached the arrivals section.

Parents not allowed to find work yet

Without any regular accommodations lined up after passing through immigration, the Lulendos are planning to spend about a month at a Salvation Army shelter in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province. While their children are allowed to attend school for humanitarian reasons, the Lulendos aren’t able to look for work because they haven’t been given refugee status yet, so the family’s livelihood will depend upon funds raised by refugee advocacy groups.

The Lulendos have been in Korea for nine months, but this was their first chance to actually see the country. Their first destination as a family on Friday was a barbecue restaurant serving samgyeopsal, or pork bellies.

“While the Lulendo family were in the airport, they didn’t have enough protein to eat. Since the family members said they wanted to have some samgyeopsal while they were at the airport, we’ve made reservations at a barbecue place nearby,” said Kim Eo-jin, president of a group called Hand in Hand with Refugees, with a grin on his face.

By Jeon Gwang-joon, staff reporter

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