Illegal immigrants fear Korea’s detention centers

Posted on : 2007-02-13 15:11 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Arrests made without a warrant, surprise raids cited as stoking culture of fear

Illegal foreigners residing in South Korea said they fear the nation’s immigration offices and their detention centers. Those that have had to visit such centers or be detained there say that, while they have never been convicted of any crime by the South Korean courts, the authorities there still tend to treat them as criminals.

Park Gi-chun, a 49-year-old ethnic Korean from China, recalled the time he was detained at Incheon’s immigration detention center two years ago. He was locked up at the facility for three days, but he could not sleep at all during that time because of ill treatment by officials and the constant sound of female detainees crying.

Talking about a February 11 fire at Yeosu’s immigrant detention center that killed nine foreigners, Park said, "Most of those detainees at the Yeosu center borrowed about 10 million won (US$11,000) to pay someone a commission to come to South Korea. They would have ended up beggars if they were repatriated to China, therefore they got enraged at being treated as criminals." An illegal Chinese laborer said, "In this so-called ‘foreigners’ area,’ I feel relatively safe, but I am scared in other places. I am afraid of riding the subway alone," he said.

According to a report released by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in 2005, of illegal foreigners who were taken to the detention center by the authorities, half were working at their companies when they were arrested, while 25.6 percent were merely out in public.

To take someone into a police station, a warrant is always needed. But immigration officials rarely present a warrant - in only 13.7 percent of cases, in fact. In less than half of the cases did immigration officials tell the foreigners who they were and what they were doing.

Even some foreigners legally staying in Korea have been hauled off to detention centers without being told any reason. In 2005, an Iranian man married to a South Korean woman was taken to the police station in handcuffs. He had been conversing with a South Korean associate on the street. He could not make a phone call to his wife because his cell phone was confiscated by the police. His truthful explanation - that he was waiting for his alien registration card to arrive from the immigration office - was completely ignored by the authorities.

Immigration officials often illegally use restraining devices such as handcuffs, and many detainees are injured due to this practice. Up to 79.7 percent of foreigners who were detained experienced such human rights abuses while being taken into custody.

The report by the human rights commission contains testimony from one immigrant that "officials climb the gas pipes [outside of a building] and break down the door to take away foreigners who are working. Their method of crackdown is close to a crime." Immigration officials also searched adjacent buildings without a search or arrest warrant, the report said. There are some who suffered property loss in the process of such crackdowns, and an illegal laborer from Indonesia died during such a crackdown in April last year. The Indonesian, who was 30 years old at the time, fell from the roof of a neighboring building while trying to escape from the authorities.

Sometimes, immigration officials hire so-called "proxies" to lure would-be illegal workers into a dragnet, or employ a similar method by publishing fake work advertisements. A 42-year-old Korean-Chinese man was deceived by one such employment ad published in a community paper and was caught with other illegal foreigners. "I think what government employees are doing to ethnic Korean Chinese by putting work ads in the papers amounts to a trap," he said.

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