Local gov’ts help foreign residents feel at home

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Local gov’ts help foreign residents feel at home

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Local government offices and authorities are putting on their creative hats to better communicate official policies to foreign residents, who are increasingly an integral part of Korean society, as they make up more than 10 percent of the population in some districts and make up the social and cultural heart of some neighborhoods.

When motorcycle theft became rampant in Yeongam County, South Jeolla, authorities figured there was a quicker way to warn foreign residents than printing out flyers in 10 different languages.

Yeongam Police Precinct officers printed out a page with two photos: one of a motorcycle with a lock on its rear wheel and another of a motorcycle without a lock on its rear wheel. The photos were each marked by an O and an X.

When they walked around the county flashing the flyer to foreign residents, many nodded within seconds of looking at it.

Local governments are also spearheading efforts to communicate with foreign residents.

Yeongam County Office has a separate window to help foreign residents get information about various county programs and policies. At the office, foreign residents can file civil complaints and find other administrative documents in English, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese, including paperwork to file for divorce.

Eumseong County Office of North Chungcheong also provides information about car insurance in English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Russian. The office began the service after hearing that many foreign residents end up paying fines because they did not know they had to sign up for mandatory insurance or receive periodic vehicle checkups.

The office also designed county-issued trash bags with instructions in English and Chinese.

Eumseong Police Precinct established a foreigner center in Geumwang-eup last year, which receives packages for foreign laborers while they are at work, and coordinates activities to help the foreign residents form communities.

Given the growing number of foreign residents in these regions and their impact on the local economy, local governments’ efforts to care for foreign residents are a natural response.

There are 10,288 foreign residents in Eumseong, which is 10.1 percent of its total population, according to Statistics Korea. Eumseong is third in rank after Yeongam, where 6,258 foreign residents make up 10.2 percent of its population, and Yeongdeungpo District of western Seoul, where foreign residents make up 12.1 percent of the district population.

Eumseong quickly grew as an industrial development center from 1996, and became home to many chemical, medical, electronics and metal factories. Many jobs were filled by foreigners. The number of foreign residents in Eumseong grew from 177 in 1995 to 2,443 in 2010, and surpassed the 10,000 mark last year. According to the Eumseong County Office, 196 companies in the county are employing foreign residents.

The presence of foreign residents in these regions is not only visible in number but provides a distinct atmosphere, too.

As Ali from Kyrgyzstan stopped by a traditional market in Daeso-myeon of Eumseong after his work at a paint production company earlier this month, he seemed at home among the Korean merchants.

“Is it 5,000 won ($4.20) a chicken?” he asked, pointing at two chickens at a store. “If I buy two, can you give me a 1,000 won discount?”

Akira from Sri Lanka was also shopping at the same hour in an international food market that sells all kinds of produce and spices from China, Mongolia and Southeast Asia.

“There are quite a few jobs here at Eumseong [for foreign residents],” she said as she picked up a bag of beans and dried anchovies. “After I get off work, I go home and cook with my roommate at a workers’ boarding house.”

On the streets of a residential area of Yeongam, filled with one-room apartments, many foreign residents were seen bundled in coats and hats as they hurried to an international market on the evening of Dec. 9. Some twenty restaurants in the area hung out signs saying they serve authentic food from Vietnam, Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Thailand and more.

Most were packed with foreign residents.

“It is encouraging to meet people from Vietnam and other countries here,” said Ngoc Minh, a 60-year-old who runs a Vietnamese restaurant in Yeongam. “For most of these stores, foreign residents are their main clients.” Foreign residents have become an integral part of the local economy for Koreans, as well.

“I help some 80 to 90 foreign residents get connected with employers at some 15 factories a day,” said Kim Sang-oh, who runs an employment center in Eumseong. “Without them, the local economy of the county may not run properly.”

Yet the central government’s funding for local government programs to assist foreign laborers remains largely wanting.

A foreigner employment center in Mokpo and Yeongam receives less than 36 million won a year - which roughly equals the yearly salary of one foreign laborer - as government funding.

“Just as the central government has systemized assistance to multicultural families, it must systemize assistance to foreign laborers,” said Chung Bong-sun, a pastor who runs the center. “Neglecting assistance to them could lead to further costs down the road.”

BY CHOI JONG-KWON, KIM HO [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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