Moon orders assessment of refugee issue

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Moon orders assessment of refugee issue

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Nongovernmental organizations, including the Center for Refugee Rights, call on the government to change its policies toward refugees near a fountain in front of the Blue House in Seoul on Wednesday to mark World Refugee Day. The activists said Korea needed to catch up to international standards on accepting refugees, including those from war-torn Yemen. [YONHAP]

President Moon Jae-in has ordered officials in his administration to assess an influx of Yemeni refugees on the resort island of Jeju, the Blue House press secretary said on Wednesday.

Of 561 Yemenis who arrived on Jeju Island this year to flee from civil war, 519 have applied for refugee status as of May, a dramatic increase from 42 last year and seven in 2016.

The Yemenis took advantage of a 30-day visa-free program adopted by Jeju in 2002 to support tourism on the island. Most of them arrived on direct flights from Malaysia.

“President Moon yesterday called on officials to assess the overall situation on the issue of refugees,” Kim Eui-kyeom, the Blue House press secretary, said during a regular briefing on Wednesday.

After the issue gained nationwide attention last week, a petition appeared on the Blue House website calling for the government to clamp down on the influx of refugees. As of Wednesday, the petition has garnered more than 300,000 signatures.

The Blue House is obligated to formally respond to any petition that receives at least 200,000 signatures in one month, raising interest in how President Moon, a former human rights lawyer, will react.

Comments on the petition reflect the unease that many Koreans feel about refugees in a homogenous country not familiar with the issue and located far from the Middle East.

“I am a middle-aged person living in a Korea that has top-class security,” one comment read, “and I want to pass this safe country down to my children,” reflecting a widely held assumption that refugees somehow pose a threat to the country.

In response to the concerns, Kim said the government on June 1 had added Yemen to a list of 12 countries whose citizens are required to have visas to enter Jeju. However, they can still apply for asylum upon arrival at Jeju International Airport.

“No more Yemeni refugees will come to the country” on top of the 561 already in Jeju, Kim said.

The island’s authorities have stepped up security around refugee settlements, Kim said, and the government is providing basic necessities such as bread and flour. The refugees are receiving jobs in industries that do not heavily employ locals, such as agriculture and livestock farming.

Yemenis typically fly to Malaysia as their first destination because they can stay for up to 90 days without a visa. However, Malaysia has not signed the UN Refugee Convention.

Under Korea’s refugee act, enacted in 2013, asylum seekers can submit applications at airports or shipping ports upon arrival and receive legal counsel during the process of seeking asylum.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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