[Reporter’s notebook] Korea’s immigration plan is to have no plan at all

Posted on : 2023-12-07 17:17 KST Modified on : 2023-12-07 17:17 KST
Korea wants to bring in more migrant workers than ever, but is mum on how it wants to manage their sojourns other than crackdowns and deportations
Migrant workers hold up signs at a national rally for migrant workers held outside Yongsan Station in Seoul on Aug. 20. (Kang Chang-kwang/The Hankyoreh)
Migrant workers hold up signs at a national rally for migrant workers held outside Yongsan Station in Seoul on Aug. 20. (Kang Chang-kwang/The Hankyoreh)

“You may have come to Korea because you were fascinated by Korean television series and K-pop, but the reality isn’t that glamorous. I really hope you don’t stay in Korea too long. If you get a job here, you should save up money and get out of Korea as soon as you can.”

A Canadian who worked as a faculty member at a Seoul university gave this advice in a special talk early this year for foreign students hoping to find work in Korea. After graduating from a public university in Canada, they worked for over 15 years as a professor in Korea but never managed to adapt to Korean society.

As a foreign worker in a contracted position, they were unable to join a labor union, and every time they negotiated wages individually, they considered returning to Canada.

It was during the COVID-19 pandemic that their anger finally erupted. The South Korean government provided several emergency disaster relief payments — but apart from permanent residents and immigrants married to Korean citizens, it did not offer them to most international residents.

Eventually, the Canadian decided to leave Korea.

“If I had stayed in Canada, I wouldn’t have had to be away from my family, and I would have been able to receive a stable pension, so I regret that,” they said with a shake of the head.

The South Korean Ministry of Justice’s policies for international residents can be summed up as having two main focuses: attracting talented workers and cracking down on “illegal” (that is, undocumented) residents. In particular, the ministry has been stepping up its policing of undocumented residents.

This year alone has seen three joint government crackdowns, with tens of thousands of immigrants reportedly being deported (or leaving voluntarily) each time.

Nevertheless, the number of undocumented residents continues to rise. When the government conducted its first joint crackdown in March, there were 414,045 undocumented residents, according to the Ministry of Justice’s monthly statistical bulletin; by October, that number was up to 430,389.

The organized labor community says the reason the number of undocumented residents has not fallen is because of demand for them in the South Korean labor market.

“The fact that the number of undocumented residents continues to rise even when the government cracks down on them so hard shows that the South Korean government’s policies on international residents have failed,” said Udaya Rai, president of the Migrants’ Trade Union.

He went on to stress the need to “consider an approach that would ensure the right to stay in the country, rather than arrests and deportations.”

With over 430,000 undocumented residents currently living in South Korea, the government has now announced plans to bring in another 165,000 migrant workers next year.

The migrant workers who have taken on positions throughout South Korea have often had difficulties adapting and working in harmony with Koreans. When their officially granted sojourns finish, many of them end up joining the ranks of undocumented residents.

“The approach has been to just bring the migrant workers in, distribute them across different local government jurisdictions, and then when problems arise later on, they want to leave them to the discretion of the company and local government,” said a member of the Migration Policy Committee, an organization advising the Ministry of Justice.

Despite the gravity of the situation, the government’s response has been complacent.

After being launched on Nov. 25 of last year, the Justice Ministry’s immigration policy committee did not meet at all until recently, when comments made during a parliamentary audit this year led to exactly one meeting being held.

In an operational report early this year, the ministry announced plans to establish a dedicated “migration agency” during the first half of the year to serve as a “control tower for migration policy.” To date, no plan has been presented for its establishment.

There has also been no word about the fourth basic plan for policies on foreigners (2023–27), which is supposed to be drafted every five years by the minister of justice in accordance with the Framework Act on Treatment of Foreigners Residing in the Republic of Korea.

Can the Ministry of Justice succeed in its policy aims of attracting outstanding international workers to Korea while reducing the number of undocumented residents? It doesn’t have much time left.

By Lee Jae-ho, staff reporter

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

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