“Refugee” seems to be an extraneous word in Korea. When it comes to refugees, most people think of volatile parts of the world such as Africa and the Middle East. There are few people who imagine that there are refugees living here in Korea. Sometimes, refugees are even confused with foreign laborers. However, more than nine thousand refugees have come to Korea seeking for help, and only 471 of them have obtained refugee status. They have chosen Korea as their shelter.
▲ Pnan’s activity promoting the refugee issues. Provided by Pnan.
The 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who “owes to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, and membership of a particular social group or political opinion, outside the country of his nationality.” “Refugees are unequivocally different from foreign laborers who are seeking economic opportunities in Korea,” says Lee Ho Taeg, the leader of Pnan, which is a non-governmental organization (NGO) aiding refugees. Pnan means refuge in Korean. Also, most of them do not want a permanent stay in Korea. According to a survey in 2010, 62 percent of refugees without official refugee status said that they wanted to return to their homelands if situations improved.
The inflow of refugees to Korea has steadily increased in the last two decades. From 1994 to 2004, a total of 399 refugees came to Korea. Nevertheless, in recent four years, the number of foreigners who applied for official refugee status was more than 1,000 annually. The nationalities of refugees who have come to Korea are diverse. While Pakistan, China, and Nigeria are three major refugee- producing nations, recent conflicts in Syria and Egypt incurred the increase of asylum-seekers from the two nations.
Refugees who entered Korea first apply for refugee status to the Ministry of Justice. Officials in the refugee sector of the Korea Immigration Office evaluate their qualifications and decide whether to approve their applications. Asylums recognized through this process obtain a legal right to be protected by the Korean government. On the other hand, those who fail to receive recognition are either officially rejected or granted a humanitarian status. Humanitarian status holders obtain work permits, though other social security benefits for recognized refugees are not guaranteed. Disapproved asylums except recognized refugees can make appeals to the asylum recognition committee.
▲ At Pnan’s lighthouse for refugees. Provided by Pnan.
If rejected again by the committee, they can also sue against the decision. As each process from the first evaluation to lawsuits takes one to two years, many refugees struggle for more than five years to seek their rights. However, the multistage recognition process helps asylums sufficiently stand on their rights. The current cumulative recognition rate of international asylums in Korea is 7.3 percent. Though the rate is comparatively lower than that in Europe and North America, it is higher than that in neighboring nations such as Japan and China. “Among racially homogeneous nations, Korea’s asylum approval rate is relatively high,” says Lee.
Nevertheless, refugees who have to seek for their rights while earning livings at the same time face many difficulties. In particular, Korean laws prohibit firms from employing refugee applicants for six months after the application date. To make matters worse, the low capacity of housing facilities in the national Refugee Assistance Center and partial provision of living expenses for the unemployed newcomers aggravate their living conditions.
However, there are helping hands for refugees’ miserable journeys. Pnan, established in 1999, was the first NGO in Korea which offered aids for the suffering refugees. Lee, the founder and leader of the activist group, acknowledged the issue of refugees while aiding foreign laborers. He started with supporting North Korean refugees whom he met while conducting a research on Chinese laborers after their return from Korea. “Helping foreign laborers and North Korean defectors, I also got interested in international refugees,” says Lee.
▲ Lee Ho Taeg, the leader of Pnan. Photographed by Jung Woo Jae.
For asylum-seekers in Korea, Pnan is supporting the recognition process and assisting their lives in Korea. The protection part of Pnan provides newly coming refugees with comprehensive information about the Ministry of Justice’s evaluation process. Plus, it offers translation service and introduces lawyers if necessary. Together with Pnan, refugees collect documents that can prove persecutions in their homelands to gain approvals. “About 100 out of 471 recognized asylums in Korea have passed through us,” Lee says.
Another significant part of Pnan’s activities is the assistance part. Pnan is offering education program, medical service, and housing facilities if needed. However, the kernel of activities is assisting refugees’meaningful life in Korea. “We feel encouraged as refugees find hope in Korea and draw a better future when they go back to their homelands,” Lee states.
On this perspective, Pnan is operating a program called Job for You Mentoring Program (JUMP). “Through JUMP, refugees can not only make their living but also fulfill self-actualization by utilizing their past experience and cultural backgrounds,” Lee continues. For instance, refugees who like to take care of others and spread their traditional food culture received education to open restaurants. Also, some refugees who want to give lectures on the conflicts or issues in their homelands learned teaching and presenting skills.
In addition, Pnan is cooperating with various other organizations and companies to promote refugee issues. In association with law firms, international civic groups such as Human Asia and Medipeace, it has formed a committee named Refugee Support Network. The network leads projects promoting refugee issues, including an annual campaign on June 20, the international refugee’s day.
Diversifying and systematizing their activities, Pnan is stepping toward a real shelter for refugees. Now, it is planning to broaden its scope and begin some overseas projects. “Our activities up to now have focused on the middle stage of refugees’ life cycle. Now, we will proactively assist refugees at the beginning and the end of the cycle,” stressed Lee. If the new goals are accomplished, Pnan will support the evacuation process to return to homelands.