Refugee issue prominent at Jeju Forum
“The central and local governments of Korea are to follow the refugee act [enacted in 2013] and fulfill all its humanitarian duties for asylum seekers, it’s just that we have never experienced before a situation like today’s,” Won said in a meeting with former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the International Convention Center Jeju in Seogwipo on Tuesday, the Jeju provincial government said in a statement Wednesday. The meeting was held at the launch of the 13th Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity.
“There are 561 Yemenis who entered the island [this year] and it is a concern as to how the government should solve the issues regarding the some 800 asylum seekers on the island,” Won said. “There have been cases of Koreans seeking asylum abroad to avoid mandatory military conscription or some foreigners illegally faking asylum seeker status to find jobs in Korea. We have some 400,000 people who have signed a petition regarding the refugee issue.”
Currently there are 486 Yemenis on Jeju Island who have applied for refugee status. Of the more than 500 who arrived on the island this year, some moved to the Korean mainland before the government placed a ban on April 30 on Yemeni asylum seekers leaving Jeju for other parts of Korea.
All entered Jeju visa-free before the government on June 1 added Yemen to a list of nations whose citizens require visas to enter the island.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 491,391 people have signed a petition to the Blue House asking the central government to stop visa-free entrance to Jeju and consider scrapping or reforming the refugee law. The petition was submitted on June 13. The Blue House is obligated to formally respond to any petition that receives at least 200,000 signatures in one month.
“It has become the homework of not only Jeju Island but of South Korea to find a solution to people fleeing their homelands,” Ban said in the meeting with Won, according to the Jeju provincial government. “It’s not a simple issue and the Jeju government must be having a hard time. The refugee issue is not one contained within the borders of Korea - countries throughout the world are struggling with it. I hope that the Jeju governor will find a peaceful solution.”
World leaders zeroed in on the fate of the hundreds of refugees during its annual forum for peace and prosperity. The Jeju Forum on Tuesday hosted a special session on the issue with actor Jung Woo-sung, Korea’s goodwill ambassador to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“People ask me, is the right of refugees more important than the right of the people of this country?” Jung said during the session, “Global Refugee Crisis: What We Need to Know” hosted by the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily. “It’s not one versus another. Asylum seekers are human beings who have the right to be protected. I’m not asking you to give up everything you have for the refugees. I’m asking you to share.”
Jung, who has been the goodwill ambassador of UNHCR Korea since 2014, posted on his Instagram account a statement from UNHCR Korea on June 20, World Refugee Day, that thanked the South Korean government and locals in Jeju Island for “the efforts to help the Yemeni asylum seekers,” and added, “No Yemeni in Korea must be repatriated.”
Jung’s post received both positive and negative feedback.
“Look at what happened in the U.K., France and Germany because of refugees,” wrote someone in response to Jung’s post. “You can volunteer abroad for refugees and I support you on that cause, but I cannot say yes to accepting asylum seekers into the country.”
That response received the highest number of likes on Jung’s account - 1,742 as of Wednesday afternoon.
“I understand where these reactions are coming from,” Jung said at the Jeju Forum. “This is an age when parents have a hard time raising their children, those in their 20s and 30s struggle to find jobs and some see the influx of refugees as a security threat.
“The government must heed the voices of the people,” Jung said, “but the people too must think about the international reputation of South Korea and try to solve the issue wisely and peacefully.”
Many Yemeni asylum seekers have registered for refugee recognition, a process that can take months to years.
Normally, asylum seekers can work in Korea only six months after they submit their applications. But to address livelihood issues among the hundreds of Yemenis in Jeju, the Jeju provincial government allowed them to take jobs prior to the six-month mark and introduced them to potential workplaces, such as fishing boats or local restaurants.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]