Asylum seeker finally sees the sun after 423 days in Terminal 1
Being stuck at an uncomfortable airport due to a delay is most travelers nightmare. Now imagine you're stuck there for months. You can't leave the terminal, Covid means that the facilities to shower in have been closed and every time you try to sleep you're plagued with loud announcements over the intercom system. Other travelers stare at you, surrounded by the only belongings you have which were whatever fit in your suitcase, and while staff are kind, communication is difficult.
When Mr. A, who asked that his name not be revealed, arrived at Incheon International Airport, he had no idea this situation would become his reality.
Days turned into weeks which turned into months as the Ministry of Justice refused to screen his application for refugee status. Finally, he was granted temporary release from his airport prison for the first time in a year and two months last Tuesday.
“I arrived on Feb. 15, 2020,” Mr. A told the Korea JoongAng Daily during a video interview when he was still confined to the airport. “I want to apply for refugee status but I keep getting denied by the immigration office. I haven’t been sleeping well for the past year because people come and go in the transit area. I haven’t been getting any sunlight. I want to take a shower but I can only wash myself in the bathroom. I wash my clothes in the bathroom as well."
Mr. A left his country because he says his life was at risk. He said he was part of an anti-government group and his twin brother was murdered by government forces. When the forces came for him, he and his five children, along with his brother’s child, fled into the woods to escape but were separated. He says they burned his house down and he was forced to hide out in Virunga National Park for six months before attempted to travel to Asia.
“I don’t even know whether my children are alive or not,” he said. “If I go back, my government will kill me, just like my brother. Fifteen other members of the [anti-government] group were killed. I know that I will die if I return.”
Mr. A traveled to Indonesia where he stayed for three months before traveling on to Vietnam where he remained for four months. He then decided to travel to a third country, transiting through Korea.
“While I was here [Korea], I lost my passport so I can’t go back to my original destination,” he said. “The staff at Asiana Airline tried to send me back to my country. I’ve been refusing to do so and I sought help from the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], which helped me get in touch with organizations that could help me.”
Korea has a notoriously low acceptance rate for refugees, but in the case of Mr. A, the Ministry of Justice refused to even accept his application. The ministry insists that because Korea was not his final destination and he was merely transiting through the airport he is not entitled to apply for refugee status. According to Article 6 of Korea's Refugee Act, those seeking to obtain refugee status must submit their paperwork “when undergoing an entry inspection.” Because Korea was not Mr. A's final destination, he wasn’t eligible for screening, explained the immigration offices.
Mr. A first filed a suit against the justice ministry in March last year when his application was refused for the first time.
The Incheon District Court ruled in favor of Mr. A saying that it was illegal for the justice ministry to refuse Mr. A’s files because he wasn't initially planning on entering the county.
“The Refugee Act and other laws dictate that regional government and foreign-related offices have the duty to help a foreigner fill out and submit application forms when they express their will to apply for a refugee status,” read the ruling. “The law cannot be interpreted as mandating a foreigner to arrive at a specific ‘entry inspection’ for an application to be screened.”
The Ministry of Justice appealed the decision. It said that because visas to transit through Korea are not necessary, allowing people who arrive in the county to transit to apply for refugee status will result in abuse of the system.
The Seoul High Court will make its ruling on the appeal on April 21, but even if the court rules against the justice ministry, “It’s just the beginning of a new set of hurdles,” according to one of Mr. A’s three attorneys, Lee Hahn-jae. If the court rules in favor of Mr. A, the ministry of justice will be forced to screen Mr. A’s refugee application files — meaning they still have the choice of refusal.
“Today’s hearing was not about whether we should accept more refugees into Korea or not, but about whether we are abiding by legal standards,” Lee told the Korea JoongAng Daily in an interview on March 17, after the fourth and latest hearing on the case. “The immigration office is making an arbitrary argument on whose files it will and will not screen. This case is not about how we treat refugees but our effort to at least adhere to our own laws and the international conventions.”
But even people seeking refugee status who travel to Korea as their final destination are not guaranteed the right to have their applications screened. In 2019, a family of six from Angola was also forced to stay within the airport for 10 months after arriving in the country on tourist visas. The Ministry of Justice refused to screen the family's applications claiming they “did not seem like refugees.” After living in the airport for almost a year while a lawsuit they filed against the justice ministry was underway, the family was finally allowed to leave the airport after a court ruled their applications for refugee status should be screened. They are still waiting for a decision on their applications.
Korea joined the UN’s Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1992, which went into effect in 1993. The country officially began accepting refugees from July 1994 and the Refugee Act was established in 2013.
“Korea was the first Asian country to establish a separate Refugee Act, but we had refugees in Korea before,” said attorney Lee Il of non-profit public interest lawyers’ organization APIL, who has been helping with Mr. A’s case since last year. “But we don’t have the expertise to properly deal with refugees. Korea didn’t join the convention out of humanitarian philosophy, but a hasty need to prove itself as a ‘normal’ nation after its rapid development. The law adopted the formalities without the understanding of why and how it needs to happen, which means that it got off to a bad start. The basic mindset of the immigration office is that it keeps a conservative and half-hearted attitude toward accepting refugees.”
In 2020, 6,684 people applied for refugee status of which only 0.4 percent were approved, or 52 people. The average approval rating since the Refugee Act was established is 3.3 percent, much lower than the average approval rating of the European Union, which is 32 percent.
Currently in Korea there are 1,084 people who have been granted refugee status and a further 2,370 staying on humanitarian permits. Contrary to refugee status, a person staying in Korea on a humanitarian permit needs to have their status renewed every year and cannot travel abroad. The number of people who applied for refugee status from 1994 to 2020 is 71,042, which is 0.0002 percent of all asylum seekers around the world.
Despite the small refugee population, Korean people remain reluctant about allowing refugees into the country. According to a survey conducted by the UNHCR and Research Korea in November 2020, 53 percent of interviewees answered they were against accepting refugees while 33 percent answered they were for it. The UNHCR reflected on the results of the survey as being “small but positive progress seen in Koreans’ perception towards refugees.” The percentage of people who said they were in favor of accepting refugees was just 24 percent in 2018, after some 500 Yemeni asylum-seekers traveled to Jeju Island, a visa-free zone.
The UNHCR revealed that the main reasons those surveyed gave for accepting refugees were “in respect of human rights” and “to uphold Korea’s responsibility as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention,” while the main reasons those against gave were “due to the burden on the government and taxpayers” and “the possibility of an increase in crime and other social issues.”
The UNHCR explained that “Basic understanding about Yemeni refugees increased [...] with all generations perceiving Yemeni asylum-seekers as people fleeing from conflict and not illegal migrant workers.” But Lee Il explained that the Yemeni refugee situation was what brought the refugee issue to people’s attention and also the reason why people started using the term “fake refugees.” Fake refugees refers to people who are not in danger in their home countries and come to Korea in search of economic profits.
In 2018, a number of foreigners were convicted and punished for brokering deals for economic migrants to apply for refugee status in Korea just to find jobs. Two ethnic Chinese Koreans who ran a restaurant and a travel agency in Suwon, Gyeonggi, brokered deals for 11 Chinese citizens from March to June to help them falsely apply for refugee status in Korea to gain access to the job market. But according to Lee Il, this should not be the government's main concern.
“When it comes to screening someone’s refugee application, all the law needs to do is to determine whether a person can be defined as a refugee or not according to the international convention, not determine their righteousness or morality,” he said. “Every law is prone to abuse. It should be about seeing whether people who need to be approved are getting approved, not about trying to rule out every possibility that ‘the wrong people’ get undue benefits. Such a conservative mindset goes against the idea of the Refugee Act in the first place.”
He added, “Some people say they’re worried about Korea taking in ‘too many refugees,’ but the number that we’ve accepted is so low and will likely remain low even if we take in more, so there’s really nothing to worry about.”
On April 13, Mr. A was allowed to leave the airport for the first time in a year and two months. The Incheon District Court ruled that refusing to allow a person to leave the airport can be defined as confinement by law. Mr. A filed a case against the Ministry of Justice to allow him to leave temporarily and the court ruled that his life within the transit area “had deprived him of the minimum quality of life to maintain his human dignity such as the protection of his privacy, food, shelter, clothes or medicine.” He is currently receiving medical treatment in a hospital.
While it is the first time a court has acknowledged that leaving people stranded in an airport is illegal, the decision on whether his application will be screened is still up in the air.
“I’m happy to see the sun. I didn’t get the chance to see the sun properly,” he told local press when he left the airport on Tuesday afternoon.
“Korea needs to change the way it perceives refugees,” said Lee Sang-hyun of Duroo, who is also a part of Mr. A’s legal team.
Lee referenced the Provisional Government of Korea, which was established as a democratic republic in Shanghai and lasted until Korea’s liberation after World War II.
“Korea itself was formed by refugees. The Provisional Government of Korea in Shanghai was a typical example of a political refugee as well as other independence fighters who fled to neighboring regions. Korea would not have been formed without refugees and it is spelt out in the Constitutional Law. It would not be right for us, who were protected by overseas governments as refugees, to turn away other refugees. Korea needs to take more responsibility on the refugee issue as a member of the global society."
BY YOON SO-YEON AND JEON TAE-GYU [firstname.lastname@example.org]