On December 28, 2020, in the midst of the Corona 19 disaster, the Ministry of Justice, which was the center of heated debate over the prosecutor office’s reform issue, announced an amendment bill. It was a revision to the Refugee Act, a law that was not noticeable because it was far from the interests of most citizens.
▲ Press release from Ministry of Justice-Legislative notice of partial revision of the Refugee Act
Practically, South Korea’s refugee policy has been ‘refusal of refugee’. It was to prevent refugees from coming as much as possible, and to review them from a conservative perspective as much as possible, and to evaluate refugees who came to Korea as not refugees. The revision is tantamount to a bill that institutes the ‘refusal of refugee’ policy as a law. Concerned about the backlash, the MOJ’s press release explained it as if it was a bill to curb both fairness and efficiency at the same time. It also included some provisions that appear to be for refugee rights, such as strengthening translation, to block previous criticism of poor screening such as the so-called “false refugee interview manipulation” of thousands.
However, the hidden core of the amendment is clear. First, it is a decision regarding ‘decision on manifestly unfounded claim’. The second is ‘decision on ineligible claim’ and the third is
‘Supplementary provision’. It can be seen from the introduction of the bill’s so-called negative precedents abroad, “Accelerated procedures ” and “Eligibility screening.”
Even though a system that practically any refugee can never be granted without legal assistance is under the current system if you re-apply for refugee status, your claim sorted as an ineligible claim, so it will be reviewed by only paper and be ordered to leave the country. The key point is that through the supplementary provision, all refugees currently being screened will be subject to the new system through the same measures as de facto retroactive legislation.
It is hard to imagine how many refugees will be unfairly deported. Such a policy is bound to become known to the international community in no time. Is the Ministry of Justice now trying to brand not just “K-Pop” but also “K-Deportation”?
What does the Refugee Act of 2011 mean?
The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees stipulates who refugees are and what rights they have. In a big way, the main point is that the government will not forcibly repatriate refugees to a country that will be persecuted. Ratifying the Refugee Convention is also a nation’s declaration that it will exercise its authority and responsibility as a legitimate member of the international community.
After the 1987 democratic movement, the South Korean government, which wanted to declare its escape from the shadow of military dictatorship, joined the International Convention on Human Rights (the so-called Freedom and Social Rights) in 1990 and the United Nations in 1991. And the very next year, it walked out into the international community by ratifying the Refugee Convention in 1992.
The introduction of Korea’s refugee system began not because of its intention to protect refugees, but rather to bring Korea into the international community. The start was not for refugees. After that naturally, the refugee system, which was not actually working well, met a turning point by submitting a bill in the form of legislation by lawmakers after a series of lawmakers found out that refugees from other countries besides North Korean defectors were in South Korea.
In a tug-of-war with the Ministry of Justice, which is in charge of related affairs, the Refugee Act was born in 2011. In fact, when South Korea, which started the refugee system belatedly, attempted to put the refugee system on full track by enacting the Refugee Act, the Asian region expressed high expectations for Korea’s big step in defending human rights.
▲ Korean Refugee Rights Network Press Conference at the National Assembly’s Eui-Jeong Office on World Refugee Day 2020
The refugee system is based on limiting the discretion of domestic law’s immigration control to the obligation of banning the forced repatriation of international law. In other words, the administrative authorities’ freedom to refuse rather than welcome refugees are limited to human rights norms.
Immigration policy fundamentally discriminates against ‘people’ as a resource or potential offender and evaluates ‘useful’ foreigners and ‘not useful’ foreigners to establish a hierarchy among them. However, the refugee norms require that refugees not be repatriated to their country of origin based on the universality of human rights. Therefore, the two policies clash and refugee policies constrain immigration policies.
Therefore, the Refugee Convention restricted deportation. The Refugee Act 2011 tried to prevent “showoff interview” by guaranteeing procedural rights to enhance fairness at all. It tried to prevent the Korean government from making it easier to “make it difficult to live and voluntarily leave” by acknowledging the limited right to employment or other rights that should be taken for granted during the procedures. In the end, there are many shortcomings, but the Refugee Act is a precious law, and it is the only tool against unfair administrative power.
However, even if the bill was enacted, it was not actually followed well afterward. The quality of the interview did not rise compared to the increased number of refugee applicants, as the so-called “false refugee interview case” broke out, the refugee recognition rate plunged, and the approval process time for refugee recognition was longer. In the end, the Korean government used the refugee convention as a “purpose of entering the international community” in the past and used the refugee law enacted by lawmakers as if it were the government’s achievement. “South Korea is the first country in Asia to enact independent domestic laws to implement refuge convention,” the Korean government said, using it as a shield against the international community’s human rights demands.
South Korea has a proud history of the “democratic movement,” but the Korean government does not have a history of actively protecting minorities ‘ right to support and human rights. Korea is not a country that pays the international community for human rights as it has grown rapidly.
Korea’s Official Development Assistance Fund (ODA) is only about a fifth of its neighboring country, Japan. In terms of gross domestic product, it ranks 27th out of 30 countries in the OECD Development Assistance Committee as of 2017. The Korean government is operating a system that is summarized as ‘extremely low refugee recognition rate’ and ‘lack of refugee settlement support’, but it intends to hide it. So, for the ninth year, the Korean government has repeatedly said, ‘Korea is protecting refugees by enacting the first domestic refugee law in Asia’.
The sudden fled of Yemeni refugees, made a chance for a revision of the conservative refugee law.
▲ Changes in refugee applications, recognition, and disapproval by year [2020 NANCEN statistics collection page 10]
As the refugee system is on track, the number of refugee applicants in Korea continues to increase. The first reason is the permanent nation of international conflicts such as the Syrian War and the Yemen War, and the second reason is that information on the refugee system, which was previously unknown, has become more accessible.
However, the Ministry of Justice was not pleased with the increase in the number of refugees, understood that most were not refugees, and the fatigue and negative views of officers in charge of refugee interviews were piled up. This was seen as the conservative giving Syrian and Yemeni refugees only humanitarian stay status that doesn’t have rights of family reunification of overseas, the first measure against Yemeni refugees was an additional refugee entry ban, and the first significant drop in recognition rates, as well as the total number of refugees, began in 2018. It was difficult to expect the Ministry of Justice, which manages the management, deportation, and detention of foreigners, not the welcoming spirit to protect refugees.
The “headstone” established by the Refugee Act was neutralized by administrative practices and guidelines, and the “shortcoming” of the Refugee Act was undoubtedly revealed. The law was created, but only about 100 people were protected by refugees every year. The refugee recognition rate has fallen horribly. Refugees who trusted that South Korea would be an advanced country in human rights despite its urgent escape were deported to a third country or pushed back to a third country due to the Korean government’s “in narrow recognition standards like needle-hole” and “survive for yourself.”
In 2018, 484 Yemeni national refugees came to Jeju Island to avoid war and persecution. It was very small compared to the number of refugees who were already in Korea, but most of the people said, “Are there refugees in Korea, too? At the time when the first impression remained, the government made a bad move, which should not only protect refugees but also explain the context to the public with a thoughtful message.
For the first time, what the Ministry of Justice did was to “block the possibility of further entry of Yemeni refugees” and “not allow them to leave Jeju Island.” It can be natural that many people were unfamiliar and wary of refugees. However, the Ministry of Justice did not say that it wasn’t in that gaze, and said, ‘That’s right. Refugees can be dangerous and must be controlled.’ Since then, due to the explosion of refugee hatred by some people, more than 700,000 people petitioned to deport Yemeni refugees.
▲ the response from the Minister of Justice at the time to the petition for the abolition of the Refugee Act
Then, in response to the petition, the Minister of Justice at the time said, “We will start revising the refugee system so that it will not be abused.” We will conduct a strict review of the refugees. The safety of the Korean national is the top priority.” Yemeni refugees from places where civil war continues are clearly recognized by the international community as refugees who need protection, and even though they are not “abuses of the system,” they either said they would “revise the law to prevent abuse” or branded refugees as “threatening the safety of the people.”
In the end, it is evaluated that the response was made in the form of a further retreat in the refugee system, to the sentiment and demands of some people’s hatred of refugees. Two years later, 2018 was overheated, and now refugees are living in every corner of the country. The Justice Minister’s remarks at the time were finally brought to the surface by the Ministry of Justice’s latest revision in late 2020.
Is the Korean government deporting refugees in 2021?
The National Security Act, the Anti-Terrorism Act, the Anti-Discrimination Act, the issue of conscientious objection to conscientious service, abortion, the elimination of the rating system for persons with disabilities and obligated support standards, and the human rights of LGBTI people are all old human rights agendas that the current government was expected to take a more progressive position. Issues related to the human rights of migrants and refugees in order to create a society free from discrimination and hate and the integration of Korean society where everyone should live together were also important tasks.
However, on the contrary, most of the agendas remain ‘later’. Many human rights activists think that the issues related to the human rights of migrants and refugees are rather retreating with the current government. However, in addition to that, a bill was submitted to retreat the refugee law, which has never been revised in bad form since its enactment in 2011, in a way based on the sentiment of `refugee hate” that occurred in 2018. Why is this happening in the current government, which has vowed to become a government that defends human rights?
The important role of law and system is to check the unjust freedom of administrative authorities. When they say, “I see, you’re guilty,” we should make administrative and judicial procedures that you can argue so that you don’t feel unfair. The revision of the Refugee Act, which the administrative authorities say is “I see you are not refugee in first sight.” Indeed, it is questionable why the Korean government is now trying to push for a retreat, which does not put a brake on the administrative authorities’ unjust freedom
The Korean government has introduced the refugee law to the international community for nine years as its big achievements. Other countries in the Asia-Pacific region have been watching the performance of Korea’s refugee system. What is the Korean government saying to the countries that tried to develop the system based on Korea as a model? If the amendment to retreat the refugee law is passed as it is, the Korean government has now professed “K-deportation” to the international community.
▲ Police line in front of the 2018 REFUGEE WELCOME cultural festival
Il Lee(Advocates for Public Interest Law)
This article is a translation of the news published in ohmynews