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Visa rules for foreign English teachers challenged

Law professor asks Human Rights Commission to review requirements  PLAY AUDIO

Feb 05,2009
A law professor filed a report with the National Human Rights Commission yesterday asserting that health and criminal checks required of native English language teachers entering Korea are discriminatory.

Under Korea’s current E-2 visa policy, native English-speaking teachers are required to have the checks, while ethnic Korean non-citizen teachers holding F-4 visas and non-citizen teachers married to Koreans who have F-2 visas are not.

Professor Benjamin Wagner said the discrepancy violates the rights of native-English speakers to equal and fair treatment.

Wagner’s move is supported by the Association for Teachers of English in Korea, a fledging organization that aims to speak for foreign English teachers in Korea on various issues and to improve public perception of the profession.

According to Korea Immigration Service data, there were 19,375 E-2 visa holders as of last September.

“The current drug tests, HIV tests and criminal background checks are discriminatory,” said Tony Hellmann, ATEK’s communications director. “They reflect a mindset that foreign teachers are potentially dangerous because they are foreign.”

“ATEK cares deeply about the protection of Korea’s children,” he added. “Measures such as drug testing, which are designed to ensure that only the highest quality teachers work in Korea, should be supported, but when such measures are applied only to some groups of teachers and not others, their ability to protect children is compromised. ATEK supports a single standard applied to all who teach children - for the protection of all children.”

Kim Young-geun, a deputy director at the Justice Ministry’s Korea Immigration Service, said the ministry doesn’t agree with the report. People who want to work in Korea need to follow the country’s law, he said.

“Different countries have different visa policies. It is a matter of a country’s sovereignty to decide who should be allowed to enter the country,” said Kim. He added that the ministry included only requirements that it deemed necessary.

Wagner, a law professor at Kyung Hee University, said he intends to take a “non-adversarial approach,” insisting that the situation can be resolved amicably. Wagner hopes to persuade Korean authorities to work with ATEK to negotiate a fairer arrangement for foreign English teachers in Korea.

“The distinction to be made here,” Wagner said, “is that ATEK objects to the unfair premise of the immigration requirements, rather than the inconvenience or difficulty they might pose to E-2 visa holders.”

The E-2 visa requirements were proposed to the National Assembly in 2007, just after the arrest in October that year of sex offender Christopher Paul Neil, a Canadian native who taught English here.

Neil was arrested in Thailand on suspicion of sexual abuse of more than a dozen boys in three countries. He was not charged with a crime in Korea.

The bill was not passed into law. Professor Wagner’s report says that the policy memo outlining these visa requirements was introduced just two months after the bill failed.

“This was a disingenuous way to introduce the requirements,” Wagner argued. “Over the past year nearly 20,000 non-citizens have been subject to in-country HIV and drug tests, without reasonable grounds. Residual prejudice from isolated cases of fraud by individuals has allowed requirements of E-2 visa holders to be implemented in hagwon and schools despite their not being founded in law.”

Kim said although there is no actual law that mandates foreigners to undergo medical and criminal record checks, the ministry’s “policy memo has enough legal authority to implement the visa requirement as it was created by the Justice Ministry on the government’s behalf.”

ATEK President Tom Rainey-Smith said “the main objective of the association is to repair the broken image of foreign teachers here.” He said he hopes the report will “garner support from teachers ... so they might all engage positively and constructively with the Korean government.”

Cho Young-ho, public relations director at the National Human Rights Commission, said commission investigators will begin examining the report to see if the government policy infringes on human rights.


By Kim Mi-ju Staff Reporter/ Kate Leaver Contributing Writer [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]


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