Door to freedom does not open easily

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Door to freedom does not open easily

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Yiombi Thona has been seeking refugee status in Korea for five years. By Kim Hyun-dong

When he was an intelligence agent in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yiombi Thona had no idea that one day he would be working at a textile factory in Seoul with kimchi as a part of his diet. But that is exactly what Thona began doing in 2002, after escaping from a Congolese prison where he says he was tortured for “telling the truth about the government.”
A difficult journey brought him to Korea and he has fought a long battle to be granted refugee status.
Before his arrival all he knew about Korea was that there had once been a war here. Now he is relying on the Korean authorities for his security, which he says could be provided by an F-2-2 visa, granting him refugee status along with basic rights such as legal employment.
One of the few good things that has happened to him in five years is that he began working for a civic group, Refuge Pnan, which supports asylum seekers, instead of in the factories where he suffered a hernia and broke his left arm. Other than that, his life in Korea has been hard.
His first application for refugee status was refused in 2005, two and a half years after it had first been submitted. His appeal against this decision and a second application were refused by the Justice Ministry. He was then ordered to leave Korea by June 17. In a bid to earn a temporary reprieve, he filed litigation last month against the immigration office in the Seoul Administrative Court. Now Thona, who is 40 and has a wife and three children back in the Congo, must endure more years of waiting. And he is just one of many asylum seekers in Korea.
He ended up in Korea after running away from a Congolese prison with the help of fellow intelligence agents at the Congo’s National Agency for Information, better known as the ANR. Thona was arrested for drafting a report that said there was a secret plan devised by neighboring countries to divide the Congo amongst themselves. The report alleged that incumbent President Joseph Kabila was involved. Thona produced the report based on information developed during a spying mission to the area where the secret plan was being hatched.
Back at his office, he found that the leader of his mission had not drafted a report on the accusations against the president. Thona drafted and signed a report himself and sent it to the authorities. He was then imprisoned and charged with “plotting a coup d’etat.” Prison life is one of Thona’s worst memories. “Compared with the jails in Congo, Korean prisons are like hotels,” he said. “There is food and no beatings. My breakfast at the Congolese prison was a beating from the prison guards.”
One night, his fellow agents, who supported his case, bribed a prison guard and Thona escaped. After weeks in hiding, he fled the country with a fake passport in the name of Lukaku Patrick. His friends handed him a one-way ticket to Beijing, where he met a Congolese woman who had a Korean friend. Thona said that he found life in China made him anxious because of the friendly relations between China and his home country. Then he asked the Korean friend to send him an invitation, so he could enter Korea by boat. He applied for refugee status for the first time in November 2002.
Thona claims that his home country has a long way to go before it can claim to be a democracy, after decades of dictatorship and civil war that has caused millions of victims. “Democracy is in my country’s name, but it’s only in the name,” says Thona.
Thona said he was “disappointed” that his application for refugee status was turned down by the Korean immigration office. “It’s the wrong decision,” he said. “If the immigration office had investigated the circumstances in the Congo, I would have been given refugee status.”
Thona is not the only one who says that Korea is a difficult place for asylum seekers. Lee Ho-taeg, the leader of Refuge Pnan, says that there are currently some 1,387 displaced people in Korea, and only 62 of them have been granted refugee status. Lee claims the Korean government is too rigid when it comes to recognizing refugee status. Lee is particularly concerned that asylum seekers are not given permission to work or any help with their expenses. “It’s a way to make them leave the country,” Lee said.
Korea determines a person’s refugee status based on the United Nations Convention Regarding the Status of Refugees. The criteria is whether a person has “a well-founded fear of persecution by virtue of race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion” and whether the person is “unable or unwilling to return to the country owing to such fear” and is “outside the country of his or her nationality.”
Janice Lyn Marshall, the representative for the Seoul bureau of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), defines the “well-founded fear” as “a reasonable possibility that a person might be persecuted.” Lee says, “We should take note that fear is a subjective emotion, which cannot be gauged objectively.” He argues that the government needs to adopt a more tolerant policy. Kim Jong-chul, Thona’s lawyer, echoes this sentiment, saying “The government has an obligation to make human rights its highest priority,” he said.
“The government is holding applicants to a very stern standard,” argues Lee. “They take the view that there should be a 100 percent chance of persecution, when even a 10 percent chance is enough for a refugee to suffer overwhelming fear. We should place humanitarian considerations above all others.”
Gong Jon-haeng, an official in charge of refugee matters at the Immigration Office, rebuts Lee’s claims. “We are only abiding by the law that is based on the UN convention,” he said. “We are doing our job according to a set of fixed standards.”
Another factor that makes the immigration office seem conservative is the fear that some people will abuse refugee status. “We have seen illegal immigrants call themselves refugees, without a good reason, asking for the status just so they can stay here,” said Gong.
There is a particular reason why Thona has struggled to get refugee status. Thona says he did not trust the immigration officers and the translator he encountered in Seoul and lied about the route he took from the Congo to Korea. “I was afraid they would harm the agents who helped me,” Thona claims. In his second interview, Thona told the truth, as he had been promised that the information would be safeguarded. But the inconsistency caused the immigration office to say he was “not credible” and therefore could not have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted.” Thona’s lawyer insists that the immigration office must take into account the particular circumstances of Thona’s case.
Lee was curious about whether Thona’s claims had a solid foundation, so he traveled to the Congo last year and came back to Korea with documents that he believes to support Thona’s case.
“I met the chief guard at the prison where Thona was jailed and an official from the opposition party Thona had joined,” Lee said. He also acquired newspaper articles on Thona and copies of Thona’s intelligence service identity card. “I became 100 percent sure about Thona’s claims after my journey,” Lee says. The Congolese Embassy in Seoul was contacted for a comment but was not able to do so by the deadline for this article.
The UNHCR notes that determining refugee status is a “very complex, demanding and time-consuming undertaking.” Marshall appreciates that the Korean government has tried to improve the procedure by increasing the number of officials involved, but more improvements are required. “They still cannot adequately deal with the numbers of asylum seekers currently in the country in a timely fashion,” Marshall says, noting that the numbers of people asking for refugee status here has been increasing. “We think the Korean system needs more resources to bring it into line with international standards.”
Chang Bok-hee is a member of the Refugee Determination Committee for the immigration office and taught law at Catholic University. She notes that the Korean government has shown “progress” in dealing with refugees, but needs to do more.
“The government can strengthen the refugee-related articles under the immigration law to be more caring about the human rights of asylum seekers,” Chang says. “The Korean law now recognizes the UN convention alone, yet it needs to enforce the law with a wider and more generous perspective,” she adds.
Last week the Seoul Administrative Court ruled in favor of a Chinese democracy activist’s application for refugee status. But the court ruling does not instantly guarantee refugee status. It falls under the authority of the Justice Minister to grant refugee status, and there is a chance that the immigration office in the Chinese case will appeal. At immigration, Gong said that “nothing is confirmed” regarding the Chinese activist’s refugee status. The Seoul Administrative Court noted that the activist became a refugee “as a result of expressing political opinions,” although the immigration office originally thought those grounds lacked the necessary weight for a grant of refugee status. However, Thona is hopeful that the case means his own prospects are getting brighter.
Refugee status, however, is not a cure-all, according to Ronel Chakma Nani, a Bangladeshi who was granted refugee status in 2004. “Life is still hard,” Nani says, “but at least I have a sense of security, which means a lot.” Nani says the government should try to be more helpful. “I am not asking the government to give us everything. We are just asking for more opportunities to work and buy houses for ourselves.” He cites examples of his fellow refugees in European countries who have better chances of getting bank loans or mortgages.
In the meantime, Thona has to continue his struggle and has only limited communication with his family. He is worried that his 10-year-old son cannot go to school without him signing some papers. He is also afraid that his baby daughter has forgotten what he looks like.
These days, he says that he avoids talking to his children on the phone, because he cannot tell them when he is coming back home. “My children said they are considering changing their father, because I am not there for them,” Thona said with tears in his eyes. If he is granted refugee status, he said he will work to “install democracy” in his country and to be reunited with his family.


By Chun Su jin [sujiney@joongang.co.kr]
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