Korea is now in a moral dilemma. According to the Jeju Immigration and Foreign Affairs Office, 561 people entered Jeju Island this year, and 549 of them applied for refugee application as of June 20th. This is twelve times the amount of Yemeni refugees as this time last year. These Yemeni refugees left their country because of the civil war, which broke out in 2015, and headed to Malaysia where they could stay for 90 days without a visa. However, they failed to extend their stay permit there, so in December 2017, they headed to Jeju Island, by using a direct route set up by Malaysia National Airlines. As a result, they could stay Jeju on a visa-free basis for 30 days.
Meanwhile, the sudden increase of Yemeni refugees has triggered a heated controversy over the issue of accepting refugees. According to a survey of 40 students at Yeungnam University on this matter, just 15 percent of them are for, while about 80 percent are against. This shows that a negative response is prevailing. This is the case not only with Yeungnam University students, but most with people in Korea.
So, why do most Koreans have an unfavorable attitude toward the issue? As you know, Yemen belongs to the Muslim culture, and unfortunately the overall image of Muslims has not been agreeable so far. Such images are largely ascribed to bloodthirsty terrorists from some Islamic regime represented in the movies and news footage. This might lead Koreans to have aversion to or fear of refugees from an Islamic nation. Most opponents raise the security issues as their number one concern. Actually, a month ago, when several women went missing in Jeju, some began to suspect that the refugees might have committed the crime, despite the lack of sufficient evidence. Also, some are afraid that acceptance of the refugees might threaten the citizen’s employment rate. This clearly demonstrates mass phobia or anxiety within our nation.
However, surprisingly, in many aspects, the public misunderstands the issue of accepting refugees. First of all, according to the Jeju Provincial Police Agency, most of the recent foreign crimes have been committed by foreign “tourists.” Not a single one has been committed by Yemeni refugee applicants who entered the country for six months since December last year. Second, the jobs that Yemeni refugees might get are limited to the primary industries and culinary industry that most Koreans don’t want to do because its demanding, tough, and hard work. Therefore, they are not likely to encroach on our jobs, contrary to some people’s concerns. In principle, refugee applicants are allowed to get a job six months after the application date, but due to the serious financial difficulties of Yemeni refugees, the Ministry of Justice granted special employment permits to them on June 11 as an act of humanitarianism.
Lastly, Korea does not accept Yemeni refugees indiscriminately. Basically the government has enough competence to control the number of refugees it accepts. In fact, on June 1st, the Ministry of Justice excluded Yemen from the list of visa-free countries to prevent a further influx of Yemeni refugees. Moreover, our nation has a refugee quota system that limits refugees to a certain number per year, although the government has not yet examined it. In other words, the number of refugees has not reached a serious or critical level.
I think the diverse irrational misrecognition regarding the acceptance of refugees arises from people’s anxiety or fear of aliens, especially Islamic nations, which has been largely provoked by sensational journalism. Unexpectedly, the interviews with Jeju residents testify that no one actually objects to accepting refugees on a humanitarian basis as long as the screening process is strict and reasonable, and many others don’t even care about refugees. Although the residents of Jeju Island – who are closest to Yemeni refugees in reality are either in favor of or indifferent to the matter – people informed by the sensational mass-media are agitated by the homeless refugees.
Last December, what is now being called “Aylan’s tragedy” occurred. A photo was released of a three-year-old Syrian refugee named Aylan Kurdi, who was found dead off the coast of Turkey while trying to escape from the Syrian civil war. It aroused alarm over the refugee issue around the world. It goes without saying that refugees are vulnerable without helping hands. Actually, accepting refugees is a matter of human rights that should be sustained to avoid another tragedy like Aylan’s. Historically, Korea joined The Refugee Agreement in 1992 and ratified it in the National Assembly in the following year. Therefore, our nation should accept refugees based on that agreement. It is not a matter of choice. Also, everyone knows that refugees should be accepted from a moral and humanitarian perspective.
At present, the most urgent thing is to encourage the public to overcome the irrational and unfounded anxiety and fear of Yemeni refugees in our nation. More than anything else, our education and various efforts to make a social consensus are essential. Additionally, it is necessary to get our critical screen the news produced by diverse mass media, which underhandedly instigates our nervous feelings. From either a realistic or a humanitarian perspective, we cannot cancel the legal agreement we made about refugees. The public anxiety or unfavorable attitude toward the refugees will melt away like the snow under the sun when our government operates various actions in a legal and humanitarian way.
Let’s not forget that Korea received aid from many countries during and after the Korean War. We might need their help again if a nationwide disaster befalls us again. Now, in front of us, helpless and vulnerable humankind like Yemenis are desperately asking for our help. Can someone’s unfounded fear toward them be a persuasive pretext that we should tear ourselves away from their hopeless hands without remorse?