African man wins battle over refugee screening

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African man wins battle over refugee screening

It was Nov. 20, 2013, when a desperate Sudanese man arrived in Korea, having just fled his conflict-ridden homeland.

After receiving a draft order by the northern Sudanese government, the 23-year-old, whose identity has been withheld, decided to escape halfway across the globe.

Expecting that he would only point his gun at fellow countrymen and innocents, the young man managed to get away, and set foot in Korea in the hopes that he could earn refugee status.

But things did not go as he planned. His application to qualify for asylum was rejected by the airport immigration office, which found inconsistencies in the accounts of horror he experienced in Sudan and his reasons for applying. The next day, the immigration office ordered him on a plane back home. But the man refused to board, adamantly claiming he would face persecution. That’s when he began his six-month stay in the airport’s departure lounge.

There, his life began to very much resemble the plot of the Hollywood film “Terminal,” which centers on Viktor Navorski, a fictional protagonist who becomes trapped at John F. Kennedy International Airport for nine months after civil war breaks out in his country.

It was April 2014 when the Sudanese man left the waiting area, where he slept for months on a stretcher and subsisted on burgers. Only then did he win his legal plea for protection.

On Sunday, a Seoul court reported that it had ruled that he should at least have a chance to prove his credentials for refugee status, thereby overturning a decision by the immigration office at the Incheon International Airport denying the Sudanese national a qualification interview.

The Seoul High Court said it sided with the man, deeming that it was unfair to exclude him from the refugee screening process purely on the ground that he had given conflicting accounts.

“The decision to deny one an opportunity to undergo a qualification process for refugee status must only be made when there are clear reasons to make such a rejection. Making such a judgment just because there appear to be signs of irregularities amounts to a violation of relevant law on the part of the immigration office for its abuse of authority,” the court stated.

The court added that the man may have provided confusing statements due to heavy emotional stress.

Lee Il, the man’s lawyer, said he lives with a profound sense of insecurity because of the uncertainty over his fate.

“The immigration office is empowered with the authority to either accept or deny one’s application for a refugee-status screening to prevent the exploitation of the system by ill-intentioned foreigners,” he said. “But in reality, it is misused to strip those in real need of such status.”

BY BAEK MIN-JUNG, KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr ]

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