Korea has 20,000 stateless children

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Korea has 20,000 stateless children

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An undocumented immigrant from Vietnam holds her 3-year-old son, one of some 20,000 children in Korea without a nationality. By Oh Jong-chan

For 3-year-old Dinuli, the world is nothing more than a converted shipping container planted in a field in the suburbs of North Jeolla. Cows graze nearby. Dinuli isn’t allowed to stray far from her container home. Born to a pair of undocumented immigrants from Sri Lanka, Dinuli has naturally been swept into her parent’s clandestine lifestyle. The outside world holds little but peril.

“Once, she went outside and saw kids in the neighborhood wearing backpacks bearing the cartoon character Pororo,” says Tusara, Dinuli’s mother, who insisted she and her daughter be identified by pseudonyms.

“She begged me to buy her the same one, so I did,” Tusara, 37, laments. Dinuli insists on wearing the backpack inside the cramped container. “Just look at her now.”

Dinuli is a girl without a country. Tusara and her husband are afraid to register her with the Sri Lankan embassy because their illegal status might get exposed, and the whole family could be extradited. Tusara’s husband needs his job, and Korea isn’t that rigorous in cracking down on overstaying foreign laborers.

But now Dinuli is getting older, and the life of a fugitive is starting to oppress her. Tusara tried several times to enroll Dinuli in nearby schools but didn’t succeed.

“I took her to three day care centers, but they turned her down,” she says. “She doesn’t have insurance, and the teachers said they were afraid Korean parents would react badly.”

With more than 200,000 undocumented immigrants, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea believes there are about 20,000 stateless children like Dinuli, who are stripped of the “basic rights of education, health care benefits and social services.”

Elementary, middle and high schools are, by law, entitled to offer admission to such children and are not required to report their undocumented immigrant parents to authorities. But many hesitate. “They think they may have trouble” dealing with such outlaws, says Lim Se-wha from Save the Children.

Many stateless children turn to unauthorized schools run by religious or human rights groups, which offer courses similar to those taught in public schools but are not allowed to grant legal graduation certificates. A separate test that homeschooled students take to be eligible for college applications requires a resident registration number, as do college applications.

Living without health insurance is another worry stateless children have to live with.

“My front teeth fell out last October,” says 6-year-old Jamshid, also a pseudonym, complaining that five of his lower teeth are rotten. “It hurts so much. No matter how many times I beg my dad to take me to the dentist, he just won’t listen.”

Jamshid’s father, who doesn’t want to be named, whispers that he can’t afford his son’s medical fees, especially after being flabbergasted by Jamshid’s older brother, who had to pay some 200,000 won ($170) for a “few stitches” in his head two years ago.

Some undocumented immigrants keep their kids here because of the good things about Korea, but their statelessness threatens them as well.

“I was so surprised with the quality of Korean education,” said Innirna, also a pseudonym, a 43-year-old from Kyrgyzstan whose daughter has a place in a local kindergarten.

“I just wish she could freely learn in this country [without having to worry about her legal status],” she says. “It’s a mystery though whether an elementary school will accept her two years later.”

Pham Thi Hoa, also a pseudonym, a 34-year-old Vietnamese, is very impressed by jeong, a unique Korean sense of love and sympathy. It helps her raise her 3-year-old stateless son.

“Elderly people in my neighborhood adore him and offer me clothes their own children and grandchildren passed down,” she says.

Although Korea is among the 140 countries that signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a human rights treaty that sets out the “civil, political, economic, social health and cultural rights of children,” the country has yet to follow through with Article 7, which states that “every child has the right to a name, birth registration and nationality … The state should make laws and provisions especially for stateless children.”

In a statement issued to the JoongAng Ilbo special reporting team, the Ministry of Justice brushed off the idea that Korea would comply anytime soon, saying “a social consensus would be needed” to comply with that rule.

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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