Steps forward but South Korea must go further to support Yemeni asylum-seekers

Autumn has arrived in the beautiful island of Jeju, a popular holiday destination for people across East Asia. As harvests of its famous mandarin oranges hit the street markets, hundreds of Yemenis who arrived in Jeju earlier this year are receiving the results of their applications for refugee status.

Fleeing the devastating conflict in their home country, some 550 Yemenis have arrived in Jeju this year. Most have done so under the visa-free entry programme originally designed to attract more tourists to the island. Only seeking safety, they have found starting a new life in Korea far harder than they imagined.

Negative publicity

The community in Jeju is used to foreigners roaming around, and there are asylum seekers from other countries such as China. Hundreds of Yemenis arriving over a short period of time, however, is a new experience.

Yemenis have come to the country with powerful stories to tell, stories that a curious South Korean media has been eager to report.

One such person is Albukhati (only identified by his surname), who co-founded an organization assisting ethnic Yemeni women from Europe and the US who had been pushed into forced marriages in Yemen by their families. These marriages are a lucrative business, particularly for the brokers who arrange them.

Albukhati’s work made him some powerful enemies, and he was forced to seek asylum outside Yemen. He arrived in Jeju in May 2018 after spending three years in Malaysia.

Many other Yemenis like Albukahti have given interviews to Korean media but found their stories used to stoke fear of refugees among the local population. As some of the Yemenis arriving in Jeju were relatively well educated and might have had good career prospects at home before the conflict broke out, some Koreans who had little prior contact with refugees cannot readily understand their suffering and might consider them “fake”.

“I don’t blame any Koreans for not welcoming refugees. People do not have enough information about Yemenis. We look different, we have a different religion. We are not like the Chinese, we are from a faraway country,” said Albukahti.

Twisted reporting has contributed to a climate in South Korea that resulted in 700,000 people signing a petition demanding that the government reject the asylum seekers as refugees. Meanwhile, others have taken similar xenophobic sentiments to the streets.

Albukhati was forced to leave Yemen. He arrived in Jeju in May 2018.
Albukhati was forced to leave Yemen. He arrived in Jeju in May 2018.

Confined to the island

The South Korean government responded to public opinion. In June, it removed Yemen from the list of visa-free countries in Jeju. It also banned people who applied for refugee status in Jeju from moving to other parts of Korea, a move that violates the UN refugee convention.

“I was surprised about the decision that Yemenis could not travel out of Jeju. The cost of living here is high. It is a tourist destination and there is not a variety of jobs,” recounted Kamran, who refused to be identified by his real name.

The fact that Yemenis are confined to Jeju made them even more conspicuous as a group, although not all locals have been hostile. Far from it, in fact. As many Yemenis ran out of money and began sleeping on the streets, local civil society, religious groups, and expatriate teachers joined together to form the Jeju People’s Coalition for Refugee Rights, providing food, shelter and Korean language education for the asylum seekers.

As it became harder and harder for the Yemenis to financially sustain their lives, the government made an exception to the law and allowed people seeking asylum to look for employment before the usual six-month minimum residency period. This was partly to enable them to survive without depending on handouts, but also because there were jobs, especially in the fishing industry, that Koreans were unwilling to take.

But with most of the new arrivals coming from the north of Yemen, where they worked on farms and lived in mountains, fishing was something of an alien concept. “They don’t know how to fish. It is not easy for them to adapt. Even though they got the jobs, they don’t stay very long, as the jobs were not suitable for them.” said Kamran.

Jeju island is a popular holiday destination
Jeju island is a popular holiday destination

Denied refugee status

Of the Yemenis that have applied for refugee status this year, 362 out of 481 have been given “humanitarian stay” permits. Some 80 others are still waiting for their results, while more than 30 applications have been rejected.

While enabling them to move on from Jeju and find work in other parts of Korea, a “humanitarian stay” permit also means that the government has neither accepted them as refugees nor recognized their rights as spelled out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which South Korea is a party.

The lack of recognition as a refugee presents the Yemenis with a number of new problems.

First, the “humanitarian stay” permit does not allow Yemenis to bring their families to South Korea. With the Yemeni population in Jeju predominantly male, this means that wives and children will have to remain in Yemen and stay separated from their husbands and fathers until the war ends.

The permit also excludes Yemenis from receiving higher education. This means anyone who has not completed their degrees will not be able to do so – a major obstacle to their career prospects both in South Korea and upon their return to Yemen.

Finally, the “humanitarian stay” permit needs to be renewed every year until the war in Yemen ends. When that day comes, permits will not be renewed and Yemenis will have to return to home. This uncertainty over when they will be asked to leave South Korea leaves hundreds in a precarious position.

“There are no safe areas in Yemen at the moment. The end of the war does not necessarily mean that it is safe to go back. There may still be killings and assassinations in the post-conflict phase,” said Kamran.

Lessons from history

For the Yemenis, Jeju was an island of hope and freedom. While facing prejudice from certain sectors of Korean society, many in Jeju have taken to them as friends.

“Some Koreans I met actually signed the petition against us, but they said they did it because they did not know us enough. After meeting up and socializing with us, they realize we are different from what they thought. Some would even hug us and apologize for signing the petition,” said Albukahti.

The Korean Peninsula is a place where war has taken lives and torn families apart. During the Korean War, many Koreans sought safety in other parts of the world. As Kamran remarked, “It seems that the old people in Jeju understand our situation more than the younger ones.” He believes that contact and greater understanding with the local community is key to the Yemenis’ integration into Korean society.

History often repeats itself. While armed conflicts continue to shatter lives, people across the world, including Koreans, must learn from the past and remember the care and assistance provided to their own countrymen and women during their hours of greatest need.