South Koreans had much to be proud of this Liberation Day. They can celebrate the country’s rapid rise from the ashes of the Korean War to what is now a maturing democracy, an industrial power, and the world’s 13th-largest economy. A South Korean, Ban Ki-moon, is now the world’s top diplomat. South Korea’s pop culture has broad appeal across Asia.
While many Koreans do not realize it, South Korea also has become a beacon to many pro-democracy and human rights activists around the world. Within a generation, South Koreans shed a dictatorship for a functioning democracy, an achievement that many others hope to emulate. Yet, curiously, the South Korean government has shirked one of the vital responsibilities that comes with its new status: admitting refugees and asylum seekers.
It is understandable that some of the most desperate people, including asylum seekers and refugees, would want to find a new home in South Korea, a prosperous and open society. With a population of almost 50 million, South Korea has admitted more than 10,000 North Koreans, not as refugees but as citizens, under a resettlement program that includes basic job training, healthcare services and financial subsidies. Debates on how to label the North Koreans aside, the South Korean government is doing the right thing by offering a helping hand to North Koreans. But that hand often becomes clenched like a fist when asylum seekers and refugees from other countries reach South Korean shores.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Unhcr), Canada, the world’s 12th-largest economy, with a population of 33 million, has granted more than 151,000 people refugee status. Australia, the 17th-largest economy, with a population of 21 million, has almost 69,000 legally recognized refugees. The Republic of South Africa, the 22nd-largest economy, with a population of 47 million, hosts over 35,000 refugees. In comparison, South Korea has so far granted refugee status to just over 60 people. Another 50 or so have been given permission to stay in the country on humanitarian grounds, but without any legally recognized status as refugees or residents.
This tiny number speaks volumes about South Korea’s weak commitment to refugee protection. Yet even this small number hides a more entrenched aversion to refugees and asylum seekers. Even the few who have been granted refugee status often have been forced to put their lives on hold, not for weeks or months, but for years, while waiting for a final decision on their status. Those given permission to stay without refugee status are not allowed to work. In order to earn a living, they have to break the law. Government financial assistance is almost non-existent.
It has been 15 years since South Korea became a party to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the main international refugee protection instrument. During this period, around 1,400 people sought asylum in South Korea. Moreover, it has been seven years since South Korea became a member of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ Executive Committee, which decides important policy issues regarding refugee protection. It is time for the South Korean government to provide better refugee protection.
To start, it should increase the number of immigration officers screen asylum seekers and standardize asylum procedures so that asylum cases can be processed effectively, promptly, and humanely. The government should guarantee personal interviews with each asylum seeker, ensure confidentiality of the information provided by the applicants and provide interpreters whenever necessary. When a decision is made, the applicants should be notified of the result and the reasons that led to the decision. Asylum seekers should have the right to appeal a negative decision. Once a person is granted refugee status, he or she should be provided secure residency and related rights. While their cases are pending, asylum seekers should be allowed to work and have access to health care. Children must have access to education. For victims of torture, or others with special needs, the government should provide counseling or other appropriate services to ensure a smooth transition to a better life.
South Korea should also demonstrate solidarity with international protection efforts by offering to take refugees in desperate need of resettlement, such as Burmese in Thailand, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, and Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria.
It is long past the time South Korea can hide behind the ancient rhetoric that it is a small country surrounded by big powers, with limited resources and influence. As South Koreans celebrate their freedom and prosperity with deserved pride and self-confidence, their government should honor them by implementing a refugee and asylum policy that reflects the values and achievements that South Korea has worked so hard to attain.
Brad Adams is the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.