Would-be refugees are trapped in the airport

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Would-be refugees are trapped in the airport


Some 150 foreigners live in a 30-person deportation room of Incheon International Airport. They spend their days in the windowless room watching TV channels broadcast in Korean, or sleeping on benches or floors. [JOONGANG ILBO]

Some 150 foreigners are trapped in a single room in Incheon International Airport after their attempts to enter Korea were blocked. They have access to toilets and showers, and are given one blanket each. They eat fast food sandwiches and Coca-Cola - three times a day.

They may be here for a while.

“There is no way we are going to return to our country, which is still at war,” said 28 Syrians caught at the airport in a lawsuit filed in the Incheon District Court last month. It called for a revocation of the immigration office’s rejection of their refugee-status applications.

The 28 Syrians are sharing the 470-square-meter (5,060-square-foot) deportation room with people from nine other countries who have been refused entry, including Thailand, China, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Pakistan. The room is designed for 30 people.

Omar Muhammad (a pseudonym) is one of the Syrians trapped in the terminal. Since leaving the Aleppo region last December, Omar transited through Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates and then flew on to Korea. All of what he has seen of Korea is the eastern end of Incheon airport.

The immigration office at the airport decided not to submit his refugee-status application to the Ministry of Justice for “lack of clear reason for entry” into South Korea.

“Often, we cannot determine the exact reason for the applicants leaving their home country, and the airport needs to filter these applicants out,” a Justice Ministry official said.

The immigration office may refuse to process a foreigner’s application for refugee status for various reasons, such as applicants’ lack of cooperation in identifying themselves, posing a security risk to the country or failing to find evidence of persecution or fear of persecution in the applicants’ flight from their home country.


There is a separate class of waiting room for foreigners whose applications for refugee status have been submitted to the Justice Ministry.

That room is on the same floor, but its inhabitants are treated much better. They are offered on-demand interpretation in Arabic, English and other languages, and can apply to move to residential areas outside the airport once their application has been submitted. Three such refugee-status applicants were using the 350-square-meter room, which is meant to house 28 people, as of Sunday.

For those whose applications are rejected by immigration, there is no protection provided by the government. They are handled by Incheon’s Airline Operators Committee.

Forced deportations of the 150 foreigners is also not an option.

“The Ministry of Justice can neither deport those who were refused entry into the country, nor protect them, as there is no legal foundation for such action,” a ministry official said. “The best option for now is to set a limit on the number of refugee-status applications.”

By setting a limit, the government hopes word will filter back to the world’s trouble spots that there is little likelihood of Korea accepting them as refugees.

Last year, the number of refugee-status applications surpassed 5,000 for the first time in Korea. The number of Syrians who entered Korea from 2014 to last March reached 345, of which 314 have been allowed entry into Korea. Of the 31 whose applications have been rejected by the airport’s immigration office, 28 of them, including Omar, have been waiting in the deportation room at the airport.

“I don’t do much other than wait to catch Wi-Fi on my smartphone to reach my family back home,” Omar said. He says he could not afford to bring his family with him.

“The sandwiches provided are often chicken burgers, so I have been taking the chicken out and living off the buns for the past five months,” a 23-year-old Syrian said. Some worry that the chicken is not halal.

The foreigners are not allowed to leave the deportation room without permission. The most they have seen outside the room are some duty-free shops.

Ever since the 28 Syrians filed their lawsuit in March, the deportation room inhabitants were granted controlled tours of the duty-free shops at the airport - somewhat reminiscent of the troubles of fictional character Viktor Navorski in the 2004 movie “The Terminal.”

BY LEE YU-JUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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