At the beginning of January 2023, several media outlets reported the wide-spreading news that Russian citizens who had had their refugee status rejected were stuck at Incheon Airport (Republic of Korea). And this case was not the only one, because under the guise of receiving this status, some with ill intentions were trying to enter the country.
It should be noted that the Republic of Korea joined the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1992 and became the first country in Asia to adopt a law on refugees in 2013. However, before the admission of South Korea to the membership of the UN Refugee Agency in 2000, not a single person had been recognized as a refugee.
In recent years, South Korea has experienced a sharp increase in the number of applications for refugee status. If in 2013 there were 1,574 applicants, then in 2019 the figure was 15,451 persons. That is, in just six years, the number of foreigners who are trying to obtain refugee status has increased tenfold, which does not delight the South Korean government at all. It fears a significant influx of unreliable persons who, under the guise of refugees, could engage in illegal activities.
If we talk about the global situation, then in 2021 more than 27 million people were given refugee status, which is 700 thousand more when compared to the end of 2020. In 2021, Syria ranked 1st in the world in terms of the number of refugees (6.8 million people), followed by Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. As for host countries, the largest host country in 2021 was in Turkey (3,760,000) or 14% of the total number of refugees worldwide. Colombia was in second place with 1,844,000 people. Following them are Uganda, Pakistan and Germany.
There are no concrete statistics on refugees for 2022 yet, but it can be assumed that in view of the situation in Ukraine, this country may take first place in terms of the number of refugees, the number of which, according to media reports, has already exceeded 7 million people.
As for the Republic of Korea, during the period from 2010 to 2020 the rate of refugee admission to the country was only 1.3%, although the country accepted and processed more than 50 thousand applications for refugee status, of which only 655 were given the green light. In 2021, the refugee intake rate in South Korea also remained at the same level, which is the second lowest amongst G-20 countries. In 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the influx of refugees decreased, but experts expect that in the near future the number of new applications for refugee status will exceed 20 thousand. In 2022, information emerged that South Korea was accepting refugees from Ukraine. However, it should be noted that most of them were ethnic Koreans who were eligible for simplified visas as overseas compatriots and for the most part did not need refugee status.
From time to time, disputes in regard to foreign refugees flare up in the Republic of Korea. Supporters of granting them asylum call for humanism, categorically refuting allegations that refugees could be potential criminals and pose a threat to public safety and security. They give the example of Germany, which received a large number of refugees, and whose crime rate is quite low. Opponents point to the growing number of cases of abuse of the asylum system, as a result of which criminals from other countries can freely enter the Republic of Korea and create security threats. In this regard, they demand the abolition of the provision of the law on refugees that prohibits forced repatriation, insisting on creating a system that would reveal the true intentions of refugees.
One of the high-profile cases in this area was the mass entry of Yemeni residents (more than 500 people) to the South Korean island of Jeju in 2018, after which the South Korean authorities decided to tighten the laws for issuing refugee status and cancel the visa-free entry regime for citizens of this country in order to stop the further influx of people. The tightening of the rules included carrying out more rigorous identity and background checks, tougher penalties for those who overstayed their visa expiration dates, as well as prohibiting new applications for any applicant returning to their home country, etc.
The current immigration legislation of South Korea establishes more than 30 types of visas, including the G1-refugee visa (or rather, its variety – the G1-5 visa for obtaining political asylum, issued on grounds of the persecution of citizens in their homelands on account of political, ethnic, national and religious motives). At the same time, obtaining refugee status in South Korea is extremely difficult. Now everyone who enters in this capacity undergoes strict control and supervision. Under South Korean refugee law, asylum seekers can apply for refugee status at the time of entry and then undergo an interview. If South Korean immigration authorities deem their reasons to be valid, applicants may undergo additional verification procedures. Otherwise, they may be repatriated.
During the period of reviewing the application, the applicant does not have the right to work in South Korea and the consideration of such an application may be delayed.
It should be noted that the refugee visa is valid for one year, after which it needs to be renewed. To do this, it will be necessary once again to confirm the grounds for extending this status and prove that the situation in your homeland is still unsafe. That is why there are fears that many refugees, after a year of residence, acquire an illegal status and remain in South Korea. This is also confirmed by a significant increase in foreigners staying in the country illegally, the number of which in 2022 exceeded 400 thousand people.
Victoria Samsonova, Ph.D. in Economics, Leading Research Fellow, Head of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”