Mon, Jul 02, 2018 - Page 7 News List

‘Fake refugees get out’: How South Koreans are channeling Trump

Protests were planned against granting refugee status to about 550 people who entered the country on a tourist visa exemption for the holiday destination, whom some accused of being ‘fake refugees’

By Jihye Lee  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

On the South Korean island of Jeju, a tourist hotspot famed for blue waters and sandy beaches, Lee Hyang is angry.

The target of her wrath: more than 500 asylum seekers from war-torn Yemen looking for a safe place to live and work.

Lee, who leads a local group demanding that the Yemeni nationals be deported, believes that outsiders compete for jobs and pose a threat to local safety.

The refugees she saw at the immigration center looked “really scary,” she said.

She praised the US President Donald Trump, who won a victory this week when the US Supreme Court upheld his ban on visitors from seven countries, including Yemen.

“Donald Trump is a true patriot,” Lee said. “He says ‘America First’ and really puts his people first. That’s what our president should do too, instead of thinking of other people like these Yemenis.”

The asylum seekers in Jeju have sparked an uproar in South Korea, mirroring immigration debates in the US and Europe. One group opposed to letting them stay has posters describing the Yemenis as “fake refugees” and urging them to “get out.”

An online petition calling for their dismissal has been signed by more than a half-million people over the past 15 days.

So far, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has adhered to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, allowing people to apply for asylum.

ABUSE

The government is giving out work permits in sectors where locals would not lose jobs, such as agriculture or stock breeding, and is helping with food and medical services, while also tightening security measures, government spokesman Kim Eui-keom told reporters this month.

The South Korean Ministry of Justice on Friday morning convened an emergency meeting to discuss legislative amendments “to prevent abusive applications for refugee status,” tighten visa reviews and speed up asylum decisions.

“There are worries and concerns being expressed coming from the local Jeju provincial residents, and regardless of whether Yemeni refugees are actually threatening, the government is taking the measures that it can,” Kim said.

South Korea only has a few immigrants among a population of about 51 million and just 14,000 from the Middle East.

Asylum applications soared to almost 10,000 last year from just a few hundred one decade ago, according to data from the South Korean Ministry of Justice.

Hussein Algithi, one of the Yemeni asylum seekers, said that immigration officials in Jeju suggested that they stay indoors as much as possible while their applications were being processed.

“They see our faces, and we don’t look like them,” Algithi, dressed in a blue, checkered button-up shirt and black jeans, said of locals. “They don’t like us because we are different.”

Algithi and about 30 other Yemeni men are staying at the Olle Tourist Hotel, a narrow building sandwiched between a small convenience store and a run-down karaoke room. As many as six of them usually cram into a room. On Thursday morning, the entrance was packed with young men chatting with hotel manager Park Min-jung, whom they call “Umma,” or mom.

“I see the way people look at them when they’re smoking outside in front of the hotel, and there’s fear in their eyes,” Park said. “But they’re not scary to me at all. They remind me of my two sons — if they’re fleeing war somewhere, I’d want someone to give them a place to sleep and eat, too.”

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