Jonathan Huynh saw himself in the photograph of the lifeless three-year old, Alyand Al-Kurdi, lying dead in the sand. He had left Vietnam some 30 years ago on a small boat to escape from the communist regime that was about to take over Vietnam. “History is repeating itself,” said Huynh. He and some Vietnamese Americans have decided to provide medical aid for the Syrian refugees, heeding their call for better life in a safer world. Are Koreans deaf to that call?
▲ Aylan Kurdi, a three-year old Syrian refugee found dead on the Turkish shore. Provided by Newsweek.
Successive shipwrecks involving the loss of thousands of migrants headed to Europe have placed mounting pressure on European officials. The problem is not new, but as it grows in intensity and shows no signs of abating, the international community has been called upon to act.
In September, the same month Al-Kurdi was found, a dead four-year old girl was discovered on the Aegean coast, followed by a dead five-year old Syrian girl, who drowned after the boat she was on, sailing to Greece from Turkey, was shipwrecked. These cases are only the tip of the iceberg of the current crisis, as migrants continue to make attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Many such immigrants travel via illegal boat brokers who more often than not place them on overcrowded, less than seaworthy boats. According to European authories, such illegal brokers usually buy retired boats at a giveaway price and employ crewmen to take the migrants out to the sea. Once out at sea, the crew then sends a rescue signal in hopes the Italian or Greekcoast guard will pick up their immigrant passengers and then abandons ship, leaving those on board to fend for themselves.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported this September that more than 430,000 migrants and refugees have made their way to Europe along routes across the Mediterranean Sea this year, 300,000 of whom arrived in Greece. The number of displaced people entering Europe has steadily increased since the end of 2014, and Europe is now confronting its worst refugee crisis since end of World War II.
The 1951 Refugee Convention
The United Nations (UN) refugee agency was established after World War II to help the displaced Europeans. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in 1950 by the UN General Assembly. It was given three years to
tackle refugee issues and then adjourn. In 1951, the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted as the legal foundation for UNHCR.
The 1951 Refugee Convention defined a refugee as someone “owing a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons out of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his or her nationality, and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
▲ Migrants heading to Europe are packed often in unseaworthy boats. Provided by The Times.
In 1990, the member states of the European Union (EU) agreed on the Dublin Regulation, which aimed to ensure that the country a displaced person first applies for asylum is responsible for either accepting or rejecting the asylum seeker, and the seeker may not restart the application process in another jurisdiction. The purpose of such regulation was fulfilled at the time of its establishment; it reduced the number of orbiting asylum seekers, who were shoved from one member state to another.
However, the sudden increase in the number of Syrian refugees has called the efficacy of such regulation into question. The Dublin Regulation has been criticized for failing to provide fair protection to refugees. For example, it is logistically impossible for Greece, which is where most Syrian refugees land, to accept all the refugees. Taking such problem into consideration, Germany decided to suspend the Dublin Regulation, announcing that its Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) would no longer operate the otherwise mandatory examination process which questions whether the asylum seeker had first entered through another EU member state and whether he or she should be returned to that country.
Refugees of the World
The Syrian conflict is most responsible for the recent upsurge in refugees. The ruthless violence of the Bashar al-Assad regime that targeted its civilians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs gave many no choice but to leave. Moreover, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has subjected Syrians to appalling atrocities including murder, torture, crucifixion, and sexual slavery. Affected Syrians have had to resort to living in underfunded and insanitary camps, more motivation to set off on a dangerous, uncertain journey towards Europe knowing they may never be able to return home.
However, Syria is not the only country refugees are fleeing from. Somalia, for instance has displaced 1.1 million refugees, Afghanistan 2.59 million, and Eritrea 1.75 million.
The list goes on. In Eritrea, for example, people suppressed by the current dictatorship have chosen to exit the country. In Myanmar, a minority group of Muslims have been subject to brutal ethnic cleansing, and have left to escape death. Meanwhile, gang violence and lawlessness force citizens to migrate from nations in Central America. Some families decide to send only their children on the perilous journeys, hoping they arrive safely in the United States (U.S.).
International Community at Hand
This summer, the EU, U.S., and Kuwait declared their willingness to contribute 1.2 billion, 507 million, and 500 million dollars respectively for aid to refugees. This is good progress, but short of the 5.5 billion dollars that UN has said necessary to provide supplies for the refugees, and of another 2.9 billion dollars for the internally displaced in Syria, where refugee camps are overcrowded and unsanitary, leading to the potential spread of diseases.
With so many refugees, many countries which have been helping in the crisis have been stretched to the limit. The unemployment rate in Jordan, for example, has doubled since 2011 in regions with dense populations of refugees, according to an International Labor Organization (ILO) study. Lebanon began to require visas from displaced Syrians, and Turkey went a step further announcing in March that it would close its two remaining border gates with Syria.
Hungary is another nation reluctant to accommodate refugees. The Hungarian government declared a state of national emergency and built barbed-wire fences on its borders with Serbia in order to stop refugees from entering. Currently, only two official border checkpoints remain open. Moreover, in some instances the Hungarian police used tear gas and water cannons against displaced people.
Unlike many nations, Germany’s stance toward the refugee crisis is clear. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her decision to accommodate tens of thousands of refugees. Germany’s armed forces will be employed to assist with processing refugees. Furthermore, Germany also requested cooperation from other EU member states.
▲ Refugees form a line for food and water in Moria refugee camp, Lesbos, Greece. Provided by International Business Times.
EU Decides to Accept 120,000 Refugees
The 28 member states of EU decided to force through a deal to implement quotas totaling 120,000 refugees. While NGOs and immigration officials applauded the decision, to overrule opponents in the states of central Europe was perceived as an assault on the sovereignty of the four countries that voted against the measure. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia all voted against the mandatory quota; Poland took the unusual step of separating itself from its regional allies and siding with the decision pushed by Germany. Britain refused to take part and announced that it will separately resettle 4,000 refugees this year and 20,000 refugees over the next five years.
The decision requires the nine nations of central and Eastern Europe to take in approximately 15,000 refugees. Germany and France will accommodate double that. However, there are those who question the plan’s feasibility. The Czech government said it believed that implementing such a project would just end up in “big ridicule for governments and EU authorities.” The Hungarian government said that while it accepted the decision, it doubted its workability.
On the other hand, Carlotta Sami, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, said that the relocation plan itself will not be sufficient to solve the crisis. She claimed that EU states will have to increase how many refugees they will accept.
The EU is in a tough spot. Merkel, once declared that Germany’s doors would be open to Syrians, was accused by the Croatian president for reversing her position and instituting national border controls with Austria.
Refugees and Korea?
The Republic of Korea is not a mere spectator in the recent refugee crisis. Hamdan el-Sheikh, a displaced person from Syria, expressed his wish to seek asylum in Korea. Hamdan came to Korea in 2010 due to his father’s business, and now he cannot go back because of the Syrian conflict. He sent his passport to the Syrian embassy in Japan to renew it and to request a visa, but the embassy refused to even return his passport. As a last resort, he applied for refugee status in Korea. Certainly, due to the anti-government demonstrations he has held in Korea, and his Facebook postings extremely critical of the current government in his home country, it would be very dangerous for Hamdan to return to Syria.
However, just like some other 670 Syrian applicants for political asylum in Korea, Hamdan is currently a humanitarian resident—a state that is not acknowledged as a refugee, but still has the permission to legally remain in Korea. Humanitarian residents’ lives in Korea are restricted in many ways. First, they cannot get health insurance. Education or employment are limited as well. It is difficult for them just to drive because they are not allowed to use their international licenses—they need to pass the Korean drivers’ license exam in Korean.
Currently, Korea has accepted only two Syrians as refugees. According to Hamdan, he was told that his application was not recognized, because “[His] state was not as desperate to give the status of a refugee.” The Korean government has accepted refugees since 1992 after becoming a member of the Refugee Convention. However, the status quo for the refugees in Korea needs to change. Korea’s refugee acceptance rate is only four percent, far below the OECD average of 35 percent and only 496 out of 11,172 applicants have been accepted as refugees over the last 20 years.
▲ Professor Changrok Soh (KU Graduate School of International Studies) talks about Korea’s position in the current refugee crisis. Photographed by Lee So Young.
“The recent claim of the German chancellor to ‘accept refugees without limits’ displayed Germany’s leadership,” stated Professor Changrok Soh (KU Graduate School of International Studies). “The attitude to get involved in a global issue regardless of the cost is impressive. Korean citizens must also take part in solving this issue as a member of the international community. Doing so will mean more than doing good. Korea taking a step forth, accepting refugees and institutionalizing volunteer programs abroad for the refugees will positively influence Korea’s reputation and position in the international community.”
Soh also addressed the change in perception that is required for Koreans. “Another thing that we should not neglect is the need for change in perception. Many people believe an influx of refugees entails high cost and risk, and many displaced suffer hatred and disgust targeted at them. We must change our perception that the refugees are mere intruders—they could be human resources who can contribute in the development of our society,” he added.
There is no perfect resolution for the current refugee crisis, but solutions will require sacrifice. Koreans, if they are to play a part in easing the current suffering, will have to do a lot more. Talk is cheap—it is even free on Kakao—but action is a costly business. Some open attitude will be required—an attitude that may open doors to a world where refugees can coexist with their safety ensured.