After 6 years, man wins fight to become refugee

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After 6 years, man wins fight to become refugee


Yiombi Thona from the Democratic Republic of Congo was recognized as a refugee after more than six years of waiting. Thona recently published a book, “My Name is Yiombi,” to raise awareness about refugees in Korea. By Park Sang-moon

Beginning July 1, Korea will be the first country in East Asia to enact an independent Refugee Act, which is a response to the lack of an adequate legal framework to deal with refugees, who were covered under existing immigration law. This is the first in a two-part series on how the country has been dealing with the refugee issue.

While most travelers prefer either conservative or comfortable attire when flying overseas, Yiombi Thona decided to dress up like a woman for his flight to China.

“I can still remember the time vividly. Right now, I am seeing it,” said Thona, remembering back to July 18, 2002, when he fled his motherland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “My friends brought three different dresses and I tried them on one by one to see which one suit me better, or should I say, made me look more like a woman.”

Thona bitterly smiled as he recalled the day he fled his country.

“Although it was a terrifying moment, we burst out laughing whenever I came out of the bathroom dressed up as a woman wearing makeup and a long-hair wig. My friends teased me, saying that I can become Miss Congo at a beauty pageant. That was the only time we had a good laugh.”

Wearing the typical bright-colored African dress for women, Thona and his friends arrived at the N’djili International Airport in Kinshasa. His friends negotiated with an airport officer to allow Thona to bypass immigration and board the plane using a false passport.

“I know it may sound absurd to Koreans because Koreans will think of Incheon International Airport when I talk about my escape,” said Thona. “They ask me, how can you get on the plane without going through immigration with a forged passport? But the airport in Kinshasa is not like your airport. I beg Koreans to please move your imagination from Korea to Africa.”

Thona described the N’djili International Airport as somewhat similar to city bus terminals in Seoul.

“It’s not closed. You can’t really tell who is traveling or who’s not inside the airport. Airplanes are stationed at the gates like buses in terminals. One will ask, ‘I’m sorry, where’s a plane leaving for Hong Kong?’ to a guide and he might look around and say, ‘Hmm, oh, over there,’ and, ‘Plane going to France? Hmm, over there, next to a plane going to Indonesia.’ You see what I mean? So it’s really easy to run away from the airport, but of course when you think about the Incheon Airport, it’s nearly impossible to run away from there.”


Yiombi Thona, who was recognized as a political refugee in Korea in 2008, protests in front of the Embassy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Hannam-dong, central Seoul, in 2011. Provided by Yiombi Thona

Forced to leave home

Established as a Belgian colony in 1908, the Republic of the Congo gained its independence in 1960, only to fall under the authoritarian leadership of Joseph Mobutu, who renamed the country Zaire and himself Mobutu Sese Seko. Zaire became synonymous with corruption, and this vast country with immense economic resources has long been at the center of what some have termed Africa’s world war. After several regime changes and continuing conflicts, the country, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has the fifth-highest number of refugees in the world.

After graduating from the University of Kinshasa in 1997, Thona began working for the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) as a spy, collecting information on antigovernment organizations and opposition parties.

In 2002, about a year after President Joseph Kabila took office following the assassination of his father, Thona acquired information while
working as a spy that “there was an ugly dealing between President Kabila’s administration and the rebel army.” He mailed a report of this issue to the opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, on June 29 and was arrested two days later. Then, he was imprisoned on charges of treason and tortured.

With the help of some colleagues and friends, Thona managed to escape from the prison after a few days and flew to China with the help of a former acquaintance who got him a false passport.

However, because China is a relatively close ally of Congo, Thona had to look for a third country. After failed attempts at getting a visa to Thailand and Ethiopia, Thona applied to Korea and received a tourist visa to a country that he knew little about.

“I was so happy that day, I came back to my hotel room and I e-mailed my friend to tell him that I will be going to Pyongyang,” said Thona. “That’s how much I was unfamiliar with this country.”

In Congo, when there’s news about Korea, Thona said, most of it is about North Korea, so naturally, he thought the capital city of the country where he was going to was Pyongyang.

After arriving at Incheon Airport, Thona got into a taxi and told the driver to take him to the nearest hotel. The driver took him to Itaewon. When Thona first arrived in Seoul, there wasn’t a UN regional office in Seoul, so he wrote an e-mail to the UN Asia-Pacific Regional Center. He was finally directed to the Seoul Immigration Office and an officer came to his hotel to help him apply for refugee status a couple of days later.

“Everything worked out so smoothly after my arrival in Seoul I thought I would be reunited with my family in no time. I certainly thought the country will also provide me with housing and everything,” said Thona. “But I was wrong.”


A 3-year-old refugee from Cote d’Ivoire at a rally last year calling on the Chinese government to stop repatriating North Korean refugees to Pyongyang. [JoongAng Ilbo]

A long, slow process

In 1992, Korea introduced its refugee recognition system by joining the 1951 Refugee Convention of the United Nations and included provisions for the recognition of refugees in the enforcement decree of the country’s immigration law in 1994.

However, the country has been slow to accept refugees. Of the 4,516 people who applied for refugee status in Korea since then, only 294 were approved. The average approval rate, according to the human rights activists for refugees in Korea, is about 13 percent, far below the global average of 30 percent. The approval rate of those who receive refugee status without filing an appeal or a lawsuit is less than one percent.

For Thona, it took more than six years and a court trial to finally acquire his refugee status in Korea. At that time, while refugee applicants were waiting for an approval, they were not allowed to work. When the law was reformed in 2008, refugee applicants could start working legally a year after they submitted their application. Until the law was reformed, Thona worked illegally at factories to support himself and his family members, who were hiding in a Congolese jungle.

As a French-speaking African refugee who spoke neither Korean nor English, Thona says he suffered from many difficulties and injuries while working in factories. He was often mistreated and was called by a word, “nigger,” rather than by his name. Once, his boss ran off without paying him months worth of overdue salary.

“While I was working at a factory at night, my arm got stuck in a machine and I was bleeding. So I called my boss with a cell phone using my other arm. When I told him that I needed help and that he has to come over as my arm is stuck in a machine, he yelled at me, saying it’s two in the morning and hung up the phone,” said Thona.

“In Korea, when they see a foreigner and he’s a black guy, then they have two thoughts. Are you an American? If not, you are an African. If you are, you are then a low-class guy, you don’t know anything, you are poor and you came to Korea for money. Unfortunately, that’s the mind-set of many Koreans.”

But Thona stressed that he is certain that not all Koreans think that way, saying that if it wasn’t for some of his Korean friends, he couldn’t have survived in Korea.

Abraham Lee, an executive director of PNAN, a Christian nongovernmental organization that assists North Korean and international refugees seeking asylum in Korea and abroad, is one of them. Lee flew to Congo in hopes of finding some evidence to help Thona obtain refugee status in Korea because the Korean government didn’t believe Thona’s testimony that he was persecuted in Congo. The Korean government ordered Thona to submit official documents through the Congo Embassy but for a political refugee, “it’s like suicide to contact the embassy,” Lee said.

Luckily, Lee was able to obtain numerous documents to prove that Thona had worked in the NIA, including a copy of his NIA identification card, newspaper articles about Thona that dealt with his arrest and even the records of Thona’s investigation when he was arrested for filing a petition against President Kabila. But despite Lee’s efforts and evidence, the Immigration Office rejected Thona’s application, “reasoning such documents can be forged.”

According to the United Nations, about three interviews are required before states decide on a refugee applicant’s qualifications, but Thona went through 15 interviews and was turned down twice. The only option he had left was to file a lawsuit.

Kim Jong-chul, a director and an attorney at law at Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL), prepared the lawsuit with other lawyers for five months and finally won the case in February 2008. About four months later, Thona was reunited with his family in Korea after six and settled down in Incheon.


Raising awareness

After his experience, Thona and human rights activists rolled up their sleeves and set out to raise Koreans’ awareness of refugees by holding conferences, appearing on television programs and publishing a book. With the help of Park Jin-sook, a co-author, Thona recently published, “My Name is Yiombi,” which tells his roller-coaster life story, as well as “the true face of the Korean society on its attitude towards refugees.”

Park Jin-sook, who wrote the book in Korean by working with Thona in English and French for three years said, “I still remember the day when I went to the court to interpret for Thona. I received such a strong impression from the judge who was working on the case that he was handling the case with a negative and passive attitude, despite desperate statements from a refugee.”

Park said that she felt as though the judge was “concerned that so many refugees will crowd into Korea once he acknowledges the man in front of him as a refugee to Korea.”

It’s been 11 years since Thona came to Korea and nearly five years since his family joined him. He is now a recognized refugee and has medical insurance. But Thona says that is the maximum this country can provide him with and it’s still very difficult to survive in Korea as a refugee.

“The most frustrating thing is living. I think even though you have the refugee status or you don’t have the refugee status, the living is the same. The little difference you get is that you can travel but when you see the job market or banking for refugees, it’s the same. And Koreans don’t have much information about refugees,” said Thona.

As an example, Thona explained about his experience at the airport:

“If Koreans travel abroad, they go to the Incheon Airport about two hours before their departure time, but for me, I have to go at least three to four hours before. Why? Because when I travel, I travel with a travel document. It’s written in English and Korean and it also has the Ministry of Justice’s phone number written on it as it is issued from the ministry.

“But when I go through the immigration at the airport, none of the officers can recognize the document. They start asking questions, where I am going, where I got this document from, why I came to Korea and so on. They make me wait and make so many calls but no one seems to know what to do. After a couple of hours of questions and answers and phone calls, I finally went to Canada. When I arrived there, they saw my document. They said, ‘Oh, you are a refugee in Korea.’ Stamp here, stamp there, finished. And of course, when coming back, there was the same problem.”

Through many struggles and hardships, Thona says he now understands Korea a little and expressed hopes to “find answers to Congo’s present problems by understanding how Korea overcame its past hardships.”

“Korea is like a school for me. It’s one of the countries that went through such struggles in the world and now, Korea is a totally changed country. For me, I believe I’m in a good time and in a good place to learn what Korea exactly did in such a short time to change all this, because in Africa, what we need is a model like Korea, a development model to follow,” said Thona. “But one thing I won’t follow from Korea is the refugee model. I’ll not follow you in rejecting refugees. It’s a very bad model.”

By Yim Seung-hye []
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