[MINORITY VOICE]The Legacy of Illegal Migrant Workers

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[MINORITY VOICE]The Legacy of Illegal Migrant Workers

A few days ago, an African came to see me with a letter in his hand. The letter said he was seeking refugee status with the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and he asked me to help him. He also told me that he was an AIDS patient.

I invited the man to have lunch with me, and he said that he would take a little soup but could not eat any other food. I took him to a room where other foreigners were staying so that he could take a rest. Glancing around the room, he said that he could not stay in a room with others. He said that he was worried that other people would not he able to sleep because of the moaning he makes every night.

I took him to a hospital immediately. After several tests, the doctor told me that the African was in a serious condition. Thinking that he should receive treatment first before leaving Korea, I asked around and found out that the Disease Control Division of the Ministry of Health and Welfare is in charge of managing the AIDS epidemic. I tried to get information from that office, but bureaucrats there gave me the runaround.

Finally, I visited the Immigration Office at the Ministry of Justice, only to hear that there was no other solution but to deport him.

Even an AIDS patient has a right to proper care. If this man was left wandering around without receiving any help because of our negligence, the gruesome result would come back like a boomerang to haunt. Given this information, it becomes clear that we must do something in order to protect the rights of such foreign patients and, at the same time, to better protect public health.

The body of a female migrant worker lay in a morgue at a local hospital for three months. She had died from an AIDS-related condition. Her husband had disappeared and nobody was willing to embalm her body. No funds were available for her funeral or the repatriation of her body. On June 9, we incinerated her body after persuading her family, who wanted the body returned to her home country.

A few years ago, a Nepalese was recuperating at Seongnam Migrant Workers' House. He had received treatment for about a year, but was getting worse. Finally, the skin between his toes began festering. An examination revealed that he had contracted Hansen's disease, or leprosy. All employees at the institution had to have their blood and skin tissue examined, not to mention those who shared a room with the man.

Hospitalized at a medical institution operated by the Korea Hansen Welfare Association, he cried all the way, saying that he wanted to kill himself. We raised some money from donors to help him, and he was able to return to Nepal to his family.

According to government statistics reported to the Environment and Labor Committee of the National Assembly, some 260 migrant workers have so far been expelled from Korea after they were found to have contracted "infectious diseases" as designated by law, such as AIDS, cholera, leprosy, syphilis and pulmonary tuberculosis. Those cases involve only the industrial trainees who entered the country through legal procedures. The number of illegal migrant workers who enter the country on a tourist visa is three to four times the number of legal trainees, and there is no way to figure out how many of them are infected with such grave diseases. This is a serious risk. Few ever get the chance to get a medical examination. Moreover, for obvious reasons we have no idea where they are working.

I do not mean to imply that all migrant workers are infected with a serious disease. Still, it only takes one person to spread the disease, through brothels, for example. Public health is vulnerable to such hazards. The number of immigrant workers has surpassed 500,000. The government should waste no time drawing up measures to allow Koreans to hire foreigners legally.

This will not only protect the rights of migrant workers but the health of our people.


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The writer is a minister and head of Seongnam Migrant Workers' House.


by Kim Hae-sung

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