For Korea’s Justice Ministry, no place is sacred from immigration raids

Posted on : 2023-05-05 11:09 KST Modified on : 2023-05-05 11:09 KST
The Korean Ministry of Justice’s continued crackdown on undocumented migrants has led to reports of human rights abuses
Migrant workers wear chains in protest of their treatment in Korea. (Kang Chang-kwang/The Hankyoreh)
Migrant workers wear chains in protest of their treatment in Korea. (Kang Chang-kwang/The Hankyoreh)

“T” is a 44-year-old Nepali who arrived in South Korea in 2013 with an E-9 non-professional employment visa, which is issued to foreign nationals seeking jobs in non-professional fields such as farming, manufacturing, and construction.

T had been working past the end of his legally allowed sojourn period —a maximum of four years and 10 months — at a factory in Asan, South Chungcheong Province, when he was caught in a government crackdown on undocumented migrants on April 8. Despite suffering a dislocated shoulder during his arrest, T was immediately detained at the Daejeon Immigration Office.

It was only after he had spent all night crying and complaining of the pain that the authorities finally took him to the hospital the next day. The doctors said he would need surgery — but T was deported a day later. His medical costs of 1.04 million won (US$777) were billed to another Nepali who was arrested with him.

Following his return to Nepal, T recently submitted a petition to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea asking them to investigate infringements of his human rights, including the injury he suffered due to excessive arrest tactics, the billing of the other Nepali for his treatment costs, and the rush to deport him before the treatment had been completed.

T also called for measures to present similar human rights abuses by immigration offices in the future. The NHRCK is currently conducting procedures to verify the facts.

Reports of human rights violations have been increasing as the South Korean government steps up its crackdowns on migrants staying in the country without proper documentation.

The government arrests and deports migrants as “illegal sojourners” when they do not have an alien registration card or when they are performing labor not permitted by the law, even if they are staying in the country lawfully.

A well-known Thai singer was performing at a nightclub in Incheon on March 25 when officers from the Incheon branch of the Korean Immigration Service burst in and rounded up 83 undocumented migrants from Thailand and Laos. Concerns were raised that breaking up a cultural event organized by another country could become a diplomatic incident.

On March 12, police in Daegu raided a church while a service was underway and nabbed nine undocumented migrants from the Philippines. The police were criticized for violating the freedom of religion.

Despite multiple injuries inflicted during the government’s large-scale crackdown and widespread criticism about human rights infringements, the Ministry of Justice is loudly advertising the fact that its continuing crackdown on undocumented migrants has helped establish a strict rule of law.

In a press release on Wednesday the ministry said the number of undocumented migrants in the country had decreased by 25,000 between January and April, with 12,833 people deported and another 12,163 leaving on their own.

“The basic prerequisite of a flexible policy on immigration management is a strict and predictable system of sojourn. Therefore, we will keep striving to establish a strict system of sojourn through such means as cracking down on illegal migrants,” said Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon.

But the ministry’s vigorous crackdown is not only harmful to human rights but also unrealistic, critics say. Korea’s agriculture sector would basically be impossible to maintain without the help of undocumented migrants because Korean nationals are reluctant to work in the sector.

In a report titled “The Current Status of Unregistered Foreign Workers in the Agricultural Sector and Tasks for Improvement” by Eom Jin-yeong, a researcher with the Korea Rural Economic Institute, 91% of farmers who employ foreign workers have undocumented migrants on their staff.

There are also concerns that tougher enforcement will push these migrants into the shadows, exposing them to more dangerous working and living conditions.

On March 4, the body of an undocumented migrant from Thailand in his 60s was found abandoned on a pig farm in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province. On Feb. 23, a married couple from Thailand, both undocumented, were asphyxiated when they lit a fire to save money on their heating. The two had been living in Gochang, North Jeolla Province.

“An indiscriminate crackdown by the government isn’t enough to reduce the number of undocumented migrants and will only lead to all kinds of human rights violations. It also causes problems for farms, fisheries and factories, which only hurts the economy,” Udaya Rai, head of the Migrants’ Trade Union, told the Hankyoreh.

“I find it extremely hypocritical that the South Korean government was so desperate to put undocumented migrants to work when there was a labor shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic and is now rushing to kick them out.”

By Lee Jae-ho, staff reporter

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