‘Special contributors’ and refugees

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‘Special contributors’ and refugees

 Yang Sung-hee
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.


The harrowing footage still haunts. Afghan mothers and fathers desperately held up and threw babies over the barbed wire at Kabul’s airport pleading with Western soldiers to take them out of the hellish country under the ruthless Taliban. Some safely landed in the bosoms of British soldiers, and some on the wire. The heart-wrenching scenes underscored the tragedy of the Afghan crisis.

Korea safely accepted 390 Afghans, who supported its embassy and organizations, under the status of “special contributors” instead of refugees. Children walked out of the airport carrying stuffed animals they received as gifts .Most were under the age of 18. The family members would have departed with them with a desperate prayer that their children could be safe and live well — without knowing when they will be reunited.

In Afghanistan, women were gunned down for not wearing a burqa outside and a comedian was killed for satirizing the militant Taliban. Female faces were removed from street ads and men and women were told to be segregated in university classes. Risky flight continued.

The Afghans who came to Korea are referred to as “special contributors” instead of refugees. They had worked at the Korean embassy or with the Korea International Cooperation Agency (Koica) or other Korean missions in the country. They are allowed to stay for a lengthy period and be employed. A Korean society usually indifferent to refugee issues welcomed them. Some still chant opposition on online, but a survey by YTN showed that 70 percent approved of their long-term stay. People cheered Jincheon County for hosting them for their temporary stay.

The “special contributors” title was given to them as Korean society is still hostile towards refugees. However, as more Afghans could reach out to Korea for help, it could come under greater pressure to engage refugees. Additional evacuation will be impossible after the airport was surrendered. But there is a report that around 1,000 who have been involved with Korean missions are waiting for help. The Afghans in Korea have already pleaded for an extension in their stay after their visas expire. A U.S. plan to accommodate refugees in a U.S. military camp in Korea was called off. But the refugee issue will likely linger.

Korean hostility towards refugees surfaced when Yemenis arrived on Jeju Island as tourists and then sought asylum. Due to the overwhelmingly negative sentiment towards them, only two out of 500 asylum seekers were accepted. The fear of crime, terrorism and the costs for taxpayers were the reasons. Korea, a relatively homogenous society, is innately fearful of outsiders. Refugees are often stigmatized as potential criminals. The massacre of 17 people in Paris six years ago by Muslim immigrants helped deepen their fear towards immigrants of Islamic origin. The Afghans have become refugees after fleeing from their nation under the rule of terror and extremism. But they are bundled up together with the unfavorable view of Islamic radicals.

Ethnic Koreans have been targets of racism in the U.S., yet they are prejudiced toward non-white foreigners. Korea became the first Asian member to sign the UN Refugee Convention in 1992 and enacted the Refugee Act in 2012. Still, the county has accepted only 3 percent of refugees since 1994.

The government has made the right decision to accept the Afghans on the special status. Koreans also show a more mature attitude toward refugees than before. But refugee policy must not be selective by accepting only those who had worked for Korea. The refugee problem has become a common global issue.

Korea was escalated to the ranks of developed nations not too long ago. A deep social debate on the refugee issue must take place to motivate change in our refugee policy. The policy must reflect both international humanitarian demand and anxieties at home.
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