On Gwangju International Community Day last October, I was soaked not only because of the rain, but also with happiness and gratitude all day standing under the awning of the Syrian food booth set up in the Asian Culture Center Democracy Plaza. There were five booth members there: a Syrian man and his young son, two NGO workers including myself, and my father.
With a placard-and-menu reading “Tasty Road Syria” hung on the booth wall, we served four kinds of Baklava (traditional Arabic dessert), Nightingale’s Nest (a nutritious Syrian food made with ground beef and vegetables) and cinnamon black tea. Despite the heavy rain, many people visited the booth and enjoyed these home-made foods we had fetched early that morning from Naju. The young Syrian boy helped me with packing and worked as a cashier while his father, a patissier back in Aleppo, greeted passers-by and visitors.
“Migration to Asia Peace” (MAP), is a non-government organization where I work. Based in Seoul where a majority of refugees reside, MAP is committed to raising public awareness of forced migration and to enhancing the social integration of refugees into Korean society. Currently, MAP is taking on the case of a Syrian refugee family living in Naju and has been working in cooperation with many institutions, both in Naju and Gwangju.
Last year the number of migrants around the world surpassed 244 million, and many among them had been forced to flee their homes because of persecution, war or violence. The number of refugees and internally-displaced now stands at more than 65 million, the largest figure ever recorded. Half of documented refugees are children. More than half come from just three countries ravaged by conflict: Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. In response to the global refugee crisis, Korean individual donors have shown increasing generosity, while the Korean government has doubled its financial assistance from $8 million in 2014 to $16 million in 2015.
South Korea is no stranger to receiving and resettling refugees. However, in recent years, Korea has seen a surge in the number of asylum-seekers, from 1,574 people in 2013 to 2,896 people in 2014 and 5,711 people last year. As of the end of 2015, the government has granted refugee status to only 576 people out of a total of 15,250 asylum seekers, putting the refugee acceptance rate at 3.7 percent (far lower than the UN average of 38 percent). On the other hand, Korea launched a three-year pilot project in 2015 where the country would accept refugees every year through a UN refugee resettlement system.
Amid the protracted conflicts within Syria, Korea also saw an increasing in-flow of Syrian asylum seekers, but it seems that the government lacks the political will to safeguard the rights of Syrian refugees on the home front. As of the end of last year, only three of the 1,052 Syrian asylum seekers have received refugee status, though another 644 people were granted the right to stay here on humanitarian grounds until the war abates in their home country.
The humanitarian status holders’ predicament warrants our special and immediate attention. While refugee status holders are entitled to social welfare benefits and rights to bring their families and freely travel outside Korea, in accordance with the Refugee Act enacted in 2013, humanitarian status holders are granted the same visa (G-1) as asylum seekers, which only allows them the right to work under permission. Language barriers- a great obstacle to job-seeking – and discriminatory practices in the labor market against international residents hinder them from securing work permits that require an employment contract and an extension every six months. As a result, many applicants end up working illegally. As well as that, humanitarian status holders cannot have local health insurance in Korea. This fact makes them more vulnerable, especially children and the elderly.
Indeed, it is often the host community that fills in the gaps made by legal loop-holes and unsystematic refugee protection. In the beginning, people may have little understanding of the status and conditions of Syrian refugees, but Korean and international residents, public officers and other citizens can work together to aid those in need.
The GIC Day was one of those days in which refugees, including the Syrian family we are working with, could feel welcome in the host community. Many Korean and international residents showed generosity by purchasing extra cookies. People from neighboring booths delivered dishes made with halal meat. International students from other Muslim countries visited the Syrian family’s booth just to express their support and concern for the Syrians.
To learn more about the refugee situation in Korea, you are invited to hear me share at the GIC Talk on Saturday, December 10, at 3 p.m., entitled “Refugee Protection in Korea and its Challenges.”