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For Yemenis on Jeju, past is an obstacle

Social media trail and Islamophobia threaten their path to asylum

Aug 31,2018
Some Yemeni asylum seekers on Jeju Island have posted photos of themselves holding firearms on social media - and deleted them as their applications for refugee status are pending in Korea. [SCREEN CAPTURE]
Since Korea’s Refugee Act bans the disclosure of asylum seekers’ personal information, all the names of asylum seekers in this article are pseudonyms.



Nasir, 26, arrived on Jeju Island earlier this year seeking asylum from a civil war in Yemen. He is one of over 500 Yemenis who came to the resort island this year, taking advantage of a visa-free tourist program. Many of them are now in the process of applying for refugee status, including Nasir.

However, one criterion might hurt his chances of passing Korea’s notoriously rigid application process: his Facebook account.

Photos of Nasir uploaded to the social media site include ones of himself holding a gun, chewing on khat, a substance that is banned in Korea, and expressing support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization responsible for several terror attacks in the Middle East.

“In Yemen, men tend to possess guns or weapons,” Nasir told the JoongAng Sunday on Aug. 19. “I can’t remember it clearly now, but I think the gun that I am holding in my photo was one brought to a wedding or a party I was attending.

“It is a symbol,” he added. “If I had wanted to make a living using firearms, I would have registered myself for the military, but I didn’t want to and that’s why I came all the way to Korea.”

As for his photos showing support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasir said, “I once liked their credo, but I found out that they killed Muslim brothers, so I don’t support the group anymore.”

The JoongAng Sunday, with the help of Rigix Company, a consultancy in Seoul, tracked down the Facebook profiles of 50 people who self-identified their Yemeni citizenship and residency on Jeju Island. After checking with immigration authorities in Jeju, 38 were confirmed to be residing on the island as of this week, and 18 profiles contained photos that could hurt their chances of gaining asylum.

With public sentiment growing against the Yemeni asylum seekers, many of them are wary of the impact that social media might have on their applications. The JoongAng Sunday and Rigix Company found that some have started deleting photos on their social media accounts in the past month or closing them altogether.

In response to a public petition asking the government to restrict the flow of refugees, Justice Minister Park Sang-ki said on Aug. 1 that the government would ensure a stringent application process.

“The procedure to determine the refugee status of the Yemenis will be completed around the end of September,” Park said. “We are aware of locals’ concerns and will be checking the social media accounts of asylum seekers and also thoroughly inspecting their records on possible drug abuse, infectious diseases or crimes.”

However, Min Woong-ki, founder of Rigix Company, said the minister’s statement compromised the process because it alerted asylum seekers to clean up their online profiles.

“Because Yemen is in a civil war, the government of Yemen cannot provide official records of its citizens,” Min said. “That means social media accounts may be the only source of background check material, but the minister’s statement has invalidated this option because now the people who will be investigated know how they will be investigated.”

When the JoongAng Sunday asked Yemeni asylum seekers about their pictures on social media, some shrugged them off.

“Having a gun on you is like a symbol of manhood,” said Ahmed, 26, who came to Jeju Island with Nasir this year. “They tend to carry them to weddings or important events.”

Indeed, holding firearms is not uncommon in Yemen. The country is second to the United States in individual firearms possession as of June this year, according to Small Arms Survey, which tracks weapons ownership. Close to 53 out of 100 Yemenis possess firearms, though it remains illegal in the country.

On khat, a legal stimulant in Yemen that is banned in Korea, Ahmed said, “It’s true most Yemenis chew on khat, but the level of addiction is like that of coffee. If you want to quit, you can.”

As much as 90 percent of Yemeni men chew on khat for three to four hours a day, according to a World Health Organization report from 2009. Its consumption, though, is illegal in Korea. In 2015, a total of 3,170 kilograms (6,990 pounds) of khat was seized by Korean authorities.

In response to concerns about social media deletion, a ministry official told JoongAng Sunday, “If we find that some asylum seekers have deleted photos or accounts, we will ask them why, and they will face disadvantages in the process if they cannot provide a reasonable answer.”



No visa, no problem

A civil war that started in 2015 has internally displaced over two million Yemenis and driven about 280,000 others out of the country to seek asylum elsewhere, according to figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in March this year. Korea has had Yemeni asylum seekers come to its shores before, but the number skyrocketed in May this year.

“We had 12 apply in January, 23 in February, nine in March, 39 in April and 423 in May,” a Justice Ministry official said.

Yemenis on the island said it was a combination of Jeju’s no-visa entry and job prospects that made it an attractive destination.

“I used to run a hotel in Sana’a, but after the civil war broke out, I couldn’t keep my business open,” said Amir, 27. “Yemenis can try to go to Sudan or Egypt, but the job prospects for us are not that great there. Among the developed countries, Korea was the only one we could try to go.”

Amir said he learned about Jeju’s no-visa program and job market through YouTube videos. Another asylum seeker, Muhammad, said he learned from the social media accounts of Yemenis in Korea that asylum seekers could earn up to $2,500 a month working here.

Normally, an asylum seeker needs to wait six months upon applying for refugee status to begin looking for jobs in Korea, but the government in June decided to allow the Yemenis to find jobs as soon as they could to ensure them a stable income while waiting for a final decision on their status.

As of Aug. 16, there are 465 Yemenis on Jeju Island who have applied for asylum in Korea, according to the Jeju Immigration Office. Of them, 22 are women (the rest are men), and the average age is 27.9.

The office said 203 Yemeni asylum seekers have found jobs on the island as of this month, mostly on fish farms and boats.



An ‘international responsibility’

Korea was the first Asian country to sign the UN Refugee Convention, and despite the growing public sentiment against refugees, the government is hard-pressed not to renege on its commitment.

“Considering the international status of Korea as a nation among many, it’s not easy to decide to pull out of the Refugee Convention or abolish the Refugee Act,” Justice Minister Park Sang-ki said in response to the anti-refugee petition. “Among the 142 nations that signed the convention, none have pulled out. Abolishing the Refugee Act domestically would mean the same as pulling out of the convention, and South Korea has a duty in the international community to protect refugees. The Korean government will try its best to carry out this international responsibility but also address the concerns of locals.”

Part of that compromise includes shortening the application process, which can take two or three years, down to one year. The Justice Ministry also banned Yemeni asylum seekers on Jeju from leaving the island to other areas of the country on April 30, and on June 1, it added Yemen to a list of countries whose citizens are required to have visas to enter Jeju.

Under the current law, people applying for asylum can stay in the country during the entire process, which includes a lengthy appeal.

First, if their application is rejected by the Justice Ministry, they can appeal the decision to the justice minister. If the minister upholds the rejection, an asylum seeker can then bring the case to an administrative court and get a total of three trials, including appeals. If the administrative court upholds the rejection, the asylum seeker is deported.

The Justice Ministry considers the two reviews and three trials as the process’ five stages and said it would remove some of them to shorten the process, though it has not specified which part of the process it will remove.

During the entire period, asylum seekers are entitled to receive a subsidy from the government for basic living expenses and medical treatment. If they have younger children, they can receive public education.



Not in my backyard

“Is Korea ready to receive refugees?” read one petition submitted to the Blue House last month that was signed by over 700,000 people. “How would you know if those seeking refugee status are actually refugees?”

On the island itself, some locals are vocally unhappy about the presence of Yemeni asylum seekers.

“It is questionable whether receiving refugees and giving them the means to make a livelihood here really contributes to the economic wellbeing of the citizens and residents of Jeju,” the petition read.

On Aug. 17, about 80 locals calling themselves the Jeju Mom Cafe gathered at a guesthouse in Jangjeon-ri, Jeju, and demanded answers from the owner.

“Is it true? Is someone going to house 80 Yemenis at this place?” one member asked an employee at the guesthouse.

A few days earlier, one member of the group had posted on its website that a local pastor planned to turn the guesthouse into a safe haven for about 80 Yemeni asylum seekers.

“Our kids’ school is in the area,” another member said. “We might have to think about changing schools if this is true.”

The Jeju Immigration Office said this kind of reaction from locals is quite common.

“We’ve been housing about 260 Yemeni asylum seekers who have not found a job yet, all scattered across 36 facilities throughout the island,” said Kang Young-woo, a director at the immigration office. “Whenever we need to find a new home for them and the locals find out, this is usually how they respond.”

Kang said he had to help about 10 Yemenis find a new place to stay earlier this month after the owner of a motel they were staying in refused to offer them continued lodging. The Yemenis allegedly got into an argument with Korean guests at the motel over use of the common kitchen space.

The immigration office said it is hard at work trying to help asylum seekers assimilate into Korean culture, especially at work.

“Don’t disappear from work to pray without telling your boss,” Kang told a group of 40 Yemeni asylum seekers during a lecture at the Jeju Immigration Office on Aug. 18, “and when the boss tells you to feed the fish at a certain hour [at a fish farm], you have to feed the fish at that hour. Follow instructions and keep your promises.”

Some business arrangements between locals and Yemenis have worked out.

“Young Koreans would not apply for this job of feeding horses and taking care of them at my equestrian center,” said the 58-year-old manager of an equestrian center on the island who asked to remain anonymous. “We were just short of workers when the Yemenis showed up.”

Ibrahim, 30, said he was thankful to find a job relatively quickly. “I do want to go back home,” he said. “Why would I not? I just hope that I can keep working until I can go back.”

BY IM JANG-HYUK, PARK MIN-JE, LEE YU-JEONG AND ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]


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