Grappling with Korea’s refugee system

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Grappling with Korea’s refugee system

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Kim Jong-chul, right, a lawyer for the rights group Pnan, talks with Rana Khan at the Hwasung Detention Center. Khan is seeking refugee status on the basis of religious persecution. By Abraham Ho-Taeg Lee

Pakistan is in a state of emergency, with the international community decrying President Pervez Musharraf’s heavy-handed moves to maintain his grip on power.
But even before his home country started its current slide into chaos, Rana Khan had no desire to return. The 52-year-old Pakistani is in the midst of an uphill struggle to be granted refugee status in Korea. Having converted from Islam to Christianity, he claims that if he returns to Pakistan, he could be killed for his choice of faith.
He says his conversion caused his family to take out a newspaper ad in Pakistan formally denouncing him. He also believes that his own embassy helped get him locked up at the Hwasung Detention Center in Seoul, where immigration law violators are held awaiting deportation. He has been there for the past year and nine months.
The trouble is, Khan only applied for refugee status after he was arrested on illegal immigration charges and had already been in Korea for almost 10 years, eight of them without a visa, ironing clothes for a living at a garment factory in the Seoul area. He was arrested for not having a legal work visa. His first application for refugee status was refused by the Ministry of Justice, and he is now awaiting the result of an appeal to the Administrative Court, which should be released within the month.
The Korean refugee system in which Khan is currently entangled is still in its infancy. Korea only joined the United Nations refugee convention in 1992, the year after it became a UN member, and began receiving applications for refugee status in 1994.
But as of Oct. 10, 2007, a total of only 64 people had been granted refugee status.
“Compared to developed and generous countries, it’s a very small number,” said Abraham Ho-taeg Lee, the president of Pnan, Korea’s only nongovernmental organization offering support to refugees other than North Koreans. The group has been helping Khan.
“Korean people have the feeling that we are densely populated, so we are very reluctant to accept foreigners.
“The government is strict and narrow-minded about refugees,” Lee added. “The Korean government has a kind of phobia that if it opens the door, there will be a flood of refugees.”
Lee is not optimistic about Khan’s chances of being granted refugee status. “I feel at a loss sometimes,” Lee said. “He applied for refugee status after he was detained. That doesn’t give a good feeling to the immigration control authorities ... Also, it cannot really be seen if he changed his religion or not. It’s an internal issue.”
A further problem is that Pakistan, although an Islamic republic, claims to be open to all religions.
The record at the Refugee Division of the Korea Immigration Service also does not bode well for Khan’s chances ― 18 Pakistanis have sought refugee status here but all were denied.
Pakistan is a country with a family-based social structure and conservative Muslim majority. Renouncing Islam is generally considered unacceptable within the family system. Shifts in belief can cause serious breakdowns within families, and also attract the violent attention of extremist groups.
When I called the Pakistani Embass, I was passed through a series of officials who offered no comment on the record. After insisting that I needed to talk to someone about the case, I was finally passed along to an official with some authority, Saeed Sajad Hadir, the first secretary.
“Pakistan on a religious basis is one of the most safe countries,” said Hadir, adding, “As far as I know, there are no Pakistanis seeking asylum in Korea.”
Khan has a different story.
“My embassy called me at my company,” he said, claiming the employee who contacted him was named Imdiaz. “The man [Imdiaz] said, ‘Why [did] you change your religion?’ I said, ‘It’s my choice.’ He was very angry. “I think the embassy did this complaint against me,” said Khan. “One week later, I was arrested.”
A few minutes after my initial conversation with Hadir, he called me back. “The Pakistani Constitution is very clear that people should have freedom of religion, and every religious denomination shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage their religious institutions,” he reiterated.
When asked if a denial of the Islamic faith could cause serious problems within a family, Hadir said, “If somebody goes against, that is their particular family. This is not particularly related to Pakistan, it’s in all the Muslim world.”
I told Hadir about Khan’s claim about the call from Imdiaz. Hadir initially denied that anyone called Imdiaz worked at the embassy, then corrected himself, saying that in fact an employee called Imdiaz had left three months ago. Hadir then told me that he had taken Imdiaz’s place.
He went on to say that he had “no information” on the alleged phone call to Khan.
Pnan’s Lee says, “It’s difficult to say if Rana will be persecuted. In reality, he may face persecution.
“But the Pakistani government say they have freedom of religion. The [Pakistani] government relies on the Constitution, which says they have religious freedom.”
But in the end, whether or not Khan will face persecution if repatriated to Pakistan, or if he is simply claiming that he converted in a bid to gain refugee status, may be moot.
According to Lee, Khan was late in appealing to the Administrative Court after his initial rejection by the Ministry of Justice. The government usually makes no exceptions in these cases, said Lee. “It’s hard for foreigners in the detention center without help from lawyers and NGO’s,” said Lee. “It’s difficult for him even to know if he has to file.”
In Korea, the issue of refugees “is a newly emerging problem,” said Lee. “Developed countries like Canada, the U.S. and Australia accept refugees who have been granted that status in other countries,” said Lee.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees sets quotas for how many of the world’s approximately 10 million refugees a country will be responsible for, and then they can be resettled no matter where they are granted refugee status.
But Korea does not permit resettlement, Lee said ― only those seeking direct asylum here may apply.
In the meantime, Khan sits in the Hwasung Detention Center, waiting to be informed of his fate.


By Richard Scott-Ashe Contributing Writer [richard@joongang.co.kr]

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