‘Koreans were also once refugees’As I looked at the photo of the drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, on the beach in Turkey, I was reminded of a story about a baby who died during the Korean War. A group of refugees were crossing a river in the middle of the night, and the baby was about to cry. Because the sound would jeopardize the lives of everyone on the boat, the mother put her hand over the baby’s mouth and the baby died. The mother collapsed while holding the dead baby, according to the story.
As featured in the movie, Kukje Market, released last year, most Koreans are either refugees or their neighbors. But they seem to be indifferent to the refugee crisis that is currently unfolding in Europe. Refugees refer to the people who are in a crisis due to a war or a disaster.
In Europe, some started to call the people rushing to their countries from the Middle East and Africa “refugees” not “immigrants.” Europeans are increasingly urging their governments to help the refugees and offering their homes as shelters for refugees. Of course, there are also some people who want to shut down the borders because they fear the refugees will cause problems in the future and become a burden on society.
Although immigrants and refugees both need special help, they have different legal statuses.
According to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Although they may have entered a country illegally, refugees are entitled to seek political asylum and to demand temporary protection. The government cannot forcibly repatriate them.
Immigrants are the people who are trying to find better opportunities. When they fail to meet legal requirements, they will become illegal immigrants and face forcible deportation.
Western media is mostly referring to the recent groups of people who crossed the border to reach Europe as immigrants. But is it appropriate to call the family and neighbors of the dead boy Aylan immigrants? They are the people who are leaving their homeland of Syria in fear of the threats of the Islamic State at the risk of their own lives to head to Europe. What will be the proper way to call them?
More than 10 million refugees are living without the protection of their homeland, and about half of them are children. About 2 million children have left Syria to escape armed conflicts in their homeland. When a war takes place, innocent people suffer damages, and children and women are particularly vulnerable to disasters.
Now is the time for advanced European countries such as Germany to share the burden of Greece and other countries where refugees are rushing to enter. It is an emergency that seriously threatens peaceful coexistence of humanity, and we must never forget the duty and conscience to unite our power to help them. Of course, we need to make an effort to support our neighbors who are spending risky days in their homelands and in refugee shelters of neighboring countries.
If they cannot live safely there and if they find no hope there, more refugees will try to cross the Mediterranean Sea, risking their lives.
Since the end of World War II, the world is seeing the highest number of refugees. The situation is urgent and we must provide immediate help to them and also find a fundamental resolution. To this end, the international community must work together to find wisdom to eradicate armed conflicts from our world.
In his statement on the child migrant and refugee crisis in Europe, Anthony Lake, the executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) stressed that “we should never forget what lies behind so many of the stories of families seeking sanctuary in Europe.”
UNICEF created child-friendly shelters in Macedonia and Serbia near the border with Greece, the main travel route to Europe for refugees, and provided protection to the women and children who arrived from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Children and women, who are particularly exposed to serious threats and pains, need special help. All refugees are suffering, but children and women are exposed to the dangers of human trafficking and sexual violence. The children are spending time in the child-friendly spaces inside the refugee camps to heal their wounds on their hearts and bodies and waiting to reunite with their families.
UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon recently said he was a refugee from the Korean War. Aylan is sending a reminder to us not to forget the memories of the past. The refugee issue is too serious and urgent for us to just briefly mourn the death of an innocent child and move on.
The Korean people shed tears as they watch the movie Kukje Market, and the time has come for them to actively join the humanitarian support for the refugees.
And one important reminder: Syria is one of the countries that provided relief packages to the Korean people during the Korean War.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
*The author is the President of UNICEF/KOREA and former president of the International Criminal Court.
by Song Sang-hyun