- The Jeju provincial government recently decided to allow Yemenis to work and receive limited medical support even before their legal status is finalized
- Those applying for refugee status are allowed to stay on Jeju without any constraint during a deliberation process
SEOUL: Hundreds of South Koreans have gathered near Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul to protest at the influx of Yemeni asylum-seekers in the southern resort island of Jeju. Jeju is a self-governed province with visa-free entry.
“We’re not opposed to all refugees,” one protester said. “What we’re opposed to is fake refugees, seeking shelter here only to have jobs. That’s a trick.”
A woman who joined the protests on Saturday said most of the Yemeni asylum-seekers are men in their 20s and 30s.
“There are very few women and children. I am afraid they’re just job-seeking immigrants,” she said.
A counter protest by about 30 people nearby appealed for support for the refugees from war-torn Yemen.
“They’re not criminals. They’re not supposed to be blamed for potential crimes or because they have different religions,” said a woman holding a placard, saying: “We welcome refugees from Yemen.”
According to Jeju Immigration Office statistics, the number of Yemeni asylum-seekers jumped from 42 last year to 549 in only the first half of this year.
The rapid rise in Yemeni arrivals has caused an uproar across South Korea, a signatory to the UN Convention of Refugees in 1992 and the first Asian nation to enact a law supporting refugees in 2013.
Most of the Yemenis fleeing their conflict-ridden country stopped over in Malaysia for up to two months on their way to Jeju, where they can stay visa-free for up to 30 days.
Hussein Mohammed Ali, 28, a Yemeni asylum-seeker who arrived on the island in early May, told Arab News there were about 20,000 Yemenis in Malaysia, and many wanted to come to Jeju.
In April this year, the South Korean government banned Yemenis on Jeju from traveling to other regions.
The government subsequently removed Yemen from Jeju’s visa waiver list of about 180 countries.
“Jeju is a safer place for us. I want to have a job and a better life,” said Ali, who fled Yemen in 2014 to avoid the fighting. The asylum-seeker is staying at house owned by a group of humanitarian activists, along with a couple from Yemen.
Although the asylum-seekers are supported by social activists and multinational NGOs, many find it hard to makes ends meet on the expensive tourist island.
“We’re trying to limit the number of meals because the cost of living in Jeju is high,” said Gamdan Ahmed, 36, who left Yemen last December. “Living here is expensive. Accommodation and food are really expensive.”
The Jeju provincial government recently decided to allow Yemenis to work and receive limited medical support even before their legal status is finalized.
Such moves, however, did little to help the Yemenis on Jeju.
“The immigration office was kind enough to allow us to get jobs, but there is little work suitable for Yemenis,” said Ahmed, who worked as a marketing coordinator in Yemen.
“Most of the Yemenis in Jeju came from the mountains or farms. Some are university students and some were with commercial sectors,” he said. Most jobs on Jeju are either at aqua-farms or on fishing boats.
“Most Yemenis here do not know how to work on a ship.”
Meanwhile, anti-refugee sentiment is growing, with fears of crime and other social problems.
About 532,000 Korean people have signed a petition calling for a end to the refugee law.
“Those applying for refugee status are allowed to stay on Jeju without any constraint during a deliberation process,” said the petition. “Aside from efforts to lure foreign tourists, it’s premature to grant refugee status to those who land without a visa.”
A recent opinion poll by Realmeter suggested that almost half of 500 respondents opposed accepting Yemeni asylum-seekers, while 39 percent were in favor.
An emergency Justice Ministry meeting on June 29 decided to increase the number of immigration officers on Jeju to speed up the processing of asylum applicants.
Jeju residents said they are concerned about rising numbers of Yemeni refugees.
“We have sympathy for displaced Yemenis, but we are worried about our security,” Kim Hak-won, a hotel owner said.
“We have heard of problems that immigrants have caused in Europe. We don’t want that kind of thing happening here. This is a peaceful island for tourists.”
Two anti-refugee rallies have been held on Jeju in recent weeks.
Refugee supporters have criticizes the protests.
“We believe local extremists or right-wing political forces are fanning public fear of Islamic people,” said Shin Kang-hyup, chief of Jeju Peace Human Rights Institute.
“Ordinary people in Korea are not aware of Islamic people and culture, so they have a vague fear of immigrants.”
Since 1994, South Korea has granted refugee status to 839 out of 2,361 asylum applicants, according to Justice Ministry data. The rate stands at 4.1 percent, well below the world average of 38 percent.