Korea torn over whether to grant asylum to Russians fleeing war draft

Posted on : 2022-10-18 17:10 KST Modified on : 2022-10-18 17:10 KST
At least six yachts carrying 27 Russians have been discovered in South Korean waters since the start of the month — civil society and the government have different ideas about how their entry to Korea should be treated
A Russian yacht docked at a port in Pohang, South Korea. (courtesy of Office of Rep. An Ho-young)
A Russian yacht docked at a port in Pohang, South Korea. (courtesy of Office of Rep. An Ho-young)

After Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a “partial mobilization” of the general populace on Sept. 21, a number of Russians have attempted to enter South Korea via its eastern coastline. The Korean government’s stance on this batch of refugees — who are reminiscent of the Yemeni refugees who entered the country four years ago, in 2018 — is quite different from that of civil society.

According to material from the Korea Coast Guard that was given to the Hankyoreh on Monday by the office of An Ho-young, a lawmaker with the Democratic Party, six yachts from Russia carrying 27 Russians were discovered in South Korean waters between Oct. 1 and 10. Six of the Russians were allowed to enter the country, but the other 21 were forbidden entry because the purpose of their travel was uncertain and because they lacked the requisite documents (such as visas or electronic travel permits).

The Coast Guard wrote in a report that 10 of the Russians who had been refused entry were “suspected of seeking to enter Korea to avoid conscription in their own country.”

Korean Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said in a recent meeting at the Ministry of Justice that “foreigners who have attempted to enter the country on yachts without possessing a visa or electronic travel permit have been forbidden entry because they have failed to meet the requirements for entering the country.” That measure, Han said, was in line with Korea’s standard immigration procedures.

But lawyers who often handle asylum cases argued that these actions by the immigration authorities may be in violation of the UN Refugee Convention and Korea’s own Refugee Act. Sending the Russians packing because they haven’t explicitly applied for asylum would violate the UN Refugee Convention’s ban on involuntary repatriation. The convention states that potential asylum seekers may not be refused entry before they have been informed of the relevant procedures.

“Since these people’s stated purpose for entering the country was supposedly uncertain, I wonder what the authorities thought their actual purpose was,” said Lee Il, an attorney with Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL).

“Considering that Russia has instituted a draft, those individuals ought to have been informed of the process for applying for asylum according to regulation. Rejecting conscription serves as grounds for granting asylum under the UN Refugee Convention.”

While there’s considerable hostility toward draft dodging in Korea, where all men are required to perform military service, rejecting conscription on the grounds of conscience, religion or politics is a legitimate reason to grant asylum according to the standards of international law.

The authorities’ refusal to even allow those Russians to apply for asylum contradicts the Korean government’s public opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, legal advocates say.

“Given the difficulty of adjudicating the legitimacy of another country’s war, asylum petitions are reviewed in light of the ‘possibility of persecution,’ which is the most objective criterion. But if the government has already decided the tricky question of the legitimacy of the war and found it unjust, then it ought to embrace these Russians more enthusiastically,” said Kim Ji-rim, an attorney with the Gonggam Human Rights Law Foundation.

As more Russians inquire about asylum, Korea’s seeing swelling support for swiftly setting consistent humanitarian standards.

This month, more than 10 Russians have reportedly contacted the Korea Refugee Rights Network, a civic group that supports refugees, to inquire about the asylum-seeking process.

“Given the situation in Russia, the desire to avoid forcible conscription constitutes adequate grounds for recognition as a refugee. Russians who are fleeing [conscription] should be treated according to the same standards under which Yemeni refugees were accepted in 2018,” said Kim Yeon-ju, an attorney with Nancen Refugee Rights Center.

“The question of whether an individual is admitted into the country is based on whether that individual has met the requirements, such as possessing a visa or travel permit. We have no position to express aside from our intention of acting according to principle,” the Justice Ministry said in response to a query.

In a related story, the second panel of the Supreme Court (with Justice Cho Jae-youn presiding) declined to hear an appeal to a lower court’s ruling that requires the Justice Ministry to honor a freedom-of-information request. The lower court had ruled partially in favor of a family of asylum seekers from Congo who had sued the Minister of Justice about the ministry’s refusal to release the information.

Under the ruling upheld by the Supreme Court, the Justice Ministry must release all parts of its guidelines for reviewing applications for asylum and for refugee treatment and sojourn (revised in April 2020) aside from those that contain diplomatic secrets.

By Choi Min-young, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

Related stories