[Viewpoint] A day to reach out to refugees

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[Viewpoint] A day to reach out to refugees

June 20 is World Refugee Day, and today it is worth remembering the millions of men and women fleeing persecution all around the world. More importantly, it is a day to consider what we can do to help them find stability and lead normal lives.

Almost half of the world’s asylum seekers originate in Asia. Most familiar to readers in Korea is the sad fate of North Korean refugees lucky enough to escape their country’s political tyranny. Hundreds of these escapees, having survived one of the most brutal regimes imaginable, have ended up in Thailand, Mongolia and elsewhere, where they await resettlement in the South or another country. Tens of thousands more are living in fear in China, knowing that if they are found by the Chinese authorities they will be sent back to North Korea to face persecution, detention and possible torture.

Other situations may receive less publicity, but are equally grim.

Currently there are over 5,000 asylum seekers from the Hmong ethnic group who survive in primitive conditions behind military-guarded barbed wire camps in Ban Huay Nam Khao, Thailand. These individuals crossed the Thai border after they were subjected to gross human rights abuses in their native Laos, where many witnessed the murder of family members and suffered from rape, persecution and violent attacks. The Thai government has been attempting to repatriate the Hmong refugees to Laos against their will, despite their fears of renewed persecution if forced to return.

Even more distressing is the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that suffers from severe persecution by the dictatorial regime in Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have managed to flee to the shores of Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand, where they generally exist in a legal limbo, unable to work legally but unqualified to receive public assistance. Unfortunately, wealthy Western and Asian countries have been unwilling to accept the Rohingya for resettlement in any significant number.

Those are just a few of many pressing situations involving political refugees here in Asia; there are many others. Tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees are living in exile in India, Nepal and elsewhere. Thousands of Bhutanese refugees in Nepalese camps are waiting for third countries to accept them for resettlement. Many fear the already large number of Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka will increase in coming months as the central government consolidates its rule in territory once held by the Tamil Tigers.

What role is the Korean government playing in all this? South Korean leaders have, understandably, concentrated their efforts on resettling escapees from North Korea, who are not classified as refugees here because the North and South are legally considered one country under law. Between 1990 and December 2007, 11,641 North Korean defectors were resettled in the South. Many more are currently awaiting transfer from Mongolia, Thailand and elsewhere. Once here, North Koreans often face poverty, discrimination and difficulties adjusting to the fast pace of South Korean life. South Korea has been notably stingy in granting asylum to non-Korean refugees, however. As of Dec. 31, 2008, Korea had granted asylum to only 101 out of the 2,168 foreigners who had applied for refugee status since 1994, when Korea first opened up its doors to asylum seekers. This figure is minuscule when one considers the scale of the problem - there are currently an estimated 14.2 million refugees from political persecution in the world. By contrast, according to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, Canada was home to 175,741 refugees as of December 2007, while the Netherlands was home to 85,587 refugees, and even Liechtenstein had granted asylum to 283 individuals.

While Korea is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, activists working with refugees argue that claims of persecution are judged too narrowly and asylum applicants are not granted the full panoply of rights that they deserve under the convention’s rules. The application process can take years from start to finish, deterring applicants from seeking asylum here. Previously, asylum applicants were not allowed to work while their applications were being processed; to its credit, the government recently changed this policy, and as of this month, applicants will be allowed to work if their applications are still pending six months to a year after being filed.

In addition, Korea has been unwilling to accept any non-North Korean refugees for third-country resettlement. These individuals, often the poorest of the poor, have escaped persecution in their home country, only to find themselves in a destination that is unwilling to accept them. Even Japan, which is notorious for its reluctance to grant asylum, has recently embarked on a three-year program to annually accept 30 Burmese refugees in Thailand for third-country resettlement.

Nor has Korea been particularly generous with its support for refugee organizations. For budget year 2008, Korea contributed $3,016,519 to the programs of the UNHCR, which is far less than what could be expected for a country of its economic strength. Luxembourg’s budget year 2008 contribution to the UNHCR was $10.1 million, and Japan’s was $110.9 million.

What can we do to help? Lobby your government - whether here in Korea or in your home country - to admit more refugees, treat them with humanity while their asylum applications are pending, and contribute more to refugee organizations like the UNHCR. South Korea is not the only country that should be more generous in its treatment of asylum seekers; most Western countries could easily accommodate more refugees as well. The UNHCR accepts contributions from private individuals, as do numerous charities, like Doctors Without Borders, Refugees International and Life Funds for North Korean Refugees. You can also donate your time to assisting the North Korean refugees that have been lucky enough to make it to the South. There are some wonderful NGOs in Seoul that are able to make use of volunteers; for example, the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights runs a program for volunteers to teach English to North Korean refugees.

*The writer is a professor at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

by Andrew Wolman
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