Yemeni refugees in South Korea spark nationwide soul-searching

Yemeni refugees in South Korea spark nationwide soul-searching

The arrival of a handful of Yemeni refugees in South Korea has led to significant consternation over what exactly Seoul's wider role in the world should be.

Just the Basics

  • The arrival of some five hundred Yemeni refugees on the South Korea resort island of Jeju has sparked a national debate on migration and Korean identity

  • Levels of xenophobia in South Korea are running high, even as a range of voices call on the South Korean government to help those in need

  • South Korea's youth buck global trends by expressing higher levels of hostility towards migrants and refugees than older Koreans

In the wake of the Middle Eastern refugee crisis, many a small island has found itself on the front-line as waves of humanity crash against their shores. Faced with a humanitarian disaster, the populations of these small islands are torn between a willingness to help and fears about being demographically and logistically overwhelmed. Nativist sentiments have led to anti-refugee demonstrations on one island, with locals demanding that the government refuse the refugee claims of hundreds of Yemenis who have made the gruelling journey to the island of Jeju.

A popular tourist destination, Jeju has had to cope with an influx of Yemenis fleeing violence, and their presence has sparked a nationwide debate about immigration and nationalism. This may appear to be yet another example of mounting resistance to migrants in Europe, but Jeju is not in the Mediterranean. Hundreds of Yemeni refugees have landed on Jeju island, which is part of South Korea; marking the beginning of one of the strangest chapters of the global refugee crisis.

“About 500 people from Yemen may not seem like a lot for countries that have dealt with hundreds of thousands, even millions of refugees and people fleeing war,” explains Lee Il, rights attorney at the Seoul-based Advocates for Public Interest Law. “Here, it has forced people to think about the wider world of suffering, and in a rich country, how [South Korea fits] in.”

In order to reach South Korea, Yemeni refugees had to follow a highly circuitous route, sometimes travelling through five countries before finally ending up in Jeju. Their arrival caught the South Korean government and the island’s administrators completely by surprise. Despite being accustomed to welcoming millions of tourists from South Korea, China and Japan, Jeju was initially at a loss as to how to cope with the influx of Yemenis. With a population of around six hundred thousand, Jeju only had one immigration official when the Yemenis began to arrive, as well as only two people on the island who spoke Arabic.

How a budget airline promotion became a lifeline for those fleeing war

Far removed from the conflict zones in the Middle East, South Korea had up until 2018 been largely isolated from wider events. A highly homogenous country, South Korea does not have a legacy of accepting refugees, with only ninety-one individuals (out of 6,015 applicants) being granted refugee status in 2017. By way of comparison, 2017 only saw forty-seven Yemenis apply for refugee status. The catalyst for this sudden increase in the number of Yemenis in Jeju was not some geopolitical change, but rather a promotional deal from a budget airline.

As part of its efforts to attract tourists, Jeju does not require visas for residents of most countries, including Yemen. The visa requirements of various countries block most refugee claimants from directly travelling to their chosen havens. The lack of a functioning state in war zones such as Yemen as well as the loss of documents, either due to destruction or in the course of their flight, further hampers the efforts of refugees to escape. Furthermore, until 2018, an additional problem faced those seeking to flee to South Korea: the lack of direct flights to the Asian nation from Yemen.


Jeju Island (in red) is situated to the south of the Korean mainland, and west of Japan | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS


This dynamic changed after budget airline AirAsia began regular flights from Jeju to Malaysia. The new route was widely advertised, with a return trip costing between $200-300: some promotional offers for select customers pegged prices as low as $70. This deal was a lifeline to those Yemenis looking to journey to South Korea, as Malaysia does not require Yemeni citizens to procure visas. Hundreds of Yemenis soon began making the trip, landing in Jeju with the hope of using the island as a springboard to the mainland. These hopes were dashed after the South Korean government responded by taking Yemen off its visa-free entry list on June 1st 2018.

Yemenis in Jeju are now blocked from leaving the island, as the South Korean government deliberates on their fate, with a verdict due sometime in the next six months. A key reason why Yemeni refugees have sought out South Korea is that it is one of a handful of nations east of Iran that are party to the UN’s 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees: South Korea acceded to the convention in 1991. In addition, South Korea became the first Asia nation to enact wide ranging refugee laws, following new legislation in 2013. Under South Korean law, applicants may stay in the country while their applications are being processed. Refugees also receive a government subsidy to help with living expenses, can seek employment, access public education for their children, and file appeals if their applications are rejected.

Such liberal refugee laws seem to clash with the fact that South Korea barely accepts any refugees, although it should be remembered that historically the main concern for Seoul vis-a-vis refugees is to facilitate the integration of fellow Koreans escaping North Korea. The arrival of a new group on Korea’s shores has forced the government to enforce existing laws, despite substantial criticism from the general public. Anti-refugee protests have dotted South Korea in the wake of the arrival of the Yemenis, with aid groups helping Yemenis on Jeju even receiving threatening calls.


“For the Yemenis, Korea is portrayed as a land of opportunity,” notes Kim Dae-yong, founder and president of the Jeju Islamic Culture Centre. “Word of Korea spread fast among those Yemeni refugees in Southeast Asian countries because Korea is liveable and as we recently have seen on this island, asylum seekers are even allowed to work here.”

Kim is referring to efforts by the Jeju government to place Yemenis in farming, fishing and restaurant jobs. To this end 271 of 486 Yemenis on Jeju (as of June 21st) have found employment, occupying jobs that Koreans do not want to do. This boost in the island’s labour pool has been welcomed by local farmers and fishermen, as most have trouble finding enough seasonal workers and manual labourers, especially as Jeju’s - and South Korea in general - population is rapidly ageing.

Anti-refugee voices in the West embolden Korean protestors

The help being extended to arrivals from Yemen has triggered ample opposition from parts of South Korean society. Nativist opponents shouting “fake refugees - get out!” are espousing the kinds of xenophobic rhetoric seen in the United States and Europe. In particular, the Trump administration's hostility towards refugees is having a direct knock-on effect in South Korea, with the President’s confrontational manner being praised by anti-refugee demonstrators in Jeju. “Donald Trump is a true patriot,” exclaims Lee Hyang, leader of a Jeju-based anti-refugee group. “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 Trump administration’s anti-immigration policy has been used as an excuse for many conservative factions opposing those seeking asylum in Korea.
— Shin He-inn, senior public information associate at UNHRC-Korea

It is important to note that President Moon Jae-in, himself the son of North Korean refugees has remained silent on the issue, despite receiving a petition with 630,000 signatures (as of July 16th) demanding South Korea not grant Yemenis on Jeju refugee status. The South Korean government typically makes a public response to any petition with two hundred thousand or more signatures.

“The Trump administration’s anti-immigration policy has been used as an excuse for many conservative factions opposing those seeking asylum in Korea,” notes Shin He-inn, senior public information associate at UNHRC-Korea. “They use it as a reason to say ‘Look America’s not doing this, Europe’s not doing this, why should we?’ - and that’s misleading. Worldwide, countries accept hundreds of thousands of refugees every year.”


Son of refugees: President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in | KREMLIN.RU


At first glance, Islamophobia in South Korea appears to be a misnomer, given the country’s miniscule Muslim population and distance from Muslim-majority countries, yet fear of Muslims is on the rise. Whereas some prominent voices in the Korean-Christian community are urging the government and their fellow citizens to aid their fellow man, it should be noted that many of the most outspoken critics of Yemeni refugees have links to conservative Christian groups. “The main fears are our safety. It is all about their different idea and belief system. I mean the Muslims,” claims Christopher Han, an anti-refugee protester.

Muslim-bashing is not new to South Korea, and predates the current refugee crisis by at least a decade. Of particular note is the 2007 kidnapping of twenty-three South Korean Christian aid workers by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Two hostages were eventually killed before the rest were released, and the event brought negative portrayals of Muslims into the media spotlight in South Korea. The prolific nature of South Korean missionary efforts also means that incidents involving Korean missionaries in Muslim countries continue to regularly occur.

“I know some ordinary people have a kind of fear of Muslims,” remarks Shin Kang-hyup, head of the Jeju Peace and Human Rights Institute - “but there seems to be other forces that are trying to instigate hatred and arose more hostility towards the Yemenis. Many Chinese people entered Jeju island without a visa. Why didn’t people make a fuss about them?” One of these ‘other forces’ are conservative Christian groups who are seeking to shift public attention away from questioning the reasons for sending missionaries into dangerous areas in the first place and towards portraying Muslims as the dangerous ‘Other’ - both at home and abroad.

Are young South Koreans forgetting their own history?

Unaccustomed to the presence of outsiders in their midst, many on Jeju and South Korea in general harbour negative attitudes towards Yemeni refugees. Opponents are using the language of citizenship to delegitimize refugee claims, an attitude which has deep roots in Korean culture. Until 2007, Korean schools taught the notion of danil minjok - or the idea of Korea as a single-blooded nation; a tenet which has shaped the attitude of generations of Koreans, and which was only dropped following a complaint from the United Nations.

We, too, were once refugees
— Park Won-soon, mayor of Seoul

With the idea of Korean citizenship so long tied to Korean ethnicity, the two have become hard to separate. Take the fact that the anonymous blogger who led an anti-refugee protest in Seoul on June 30th adopted the moniker of Ilban Gungmin - literally ‘Ordinary Citizen’. The focus on ‘citizen’ is part of a concerted effort by such protest groups to bolster their claims that they speak for the majority of Koreans.

While South Korea has since taken efforts to promote multiculturalism, low levels of immigration still means that only four percent of the country's population is not ethnically Korean. With such a homogenous starting point, the reality on the ground has a long way to go to catch up to the government’s rhetoric. Furthermore, the current notion of multiculturalism is generally limited to encompassing foreigners marrying South Koreans, and thus does little to promote tolerance of other types of foreigners, such as refugees.


The idea of South Korea as an ethnically homogenous nation remained official policy until 2007


As the term ‘refugee’ has (due to the rights afforded them under Korean law) become too politically volatile, the South Korean government is altering the language it uses to describe those seeking asylum. Consequently, whereas the country only admits a handful of refugees each year, since 2014 688 individuals have entered the country after being granted “humanitarian status” - a distinction which makes them illegible for the benefits afforded to refugees. Individuals in this category are also expected to return home once their reason for leaving no longer remains.

A survey of five hundred Jeju residents found almost ninety percent expressing greater apprehension leaving their homes since the arrival of (predominantly single males) Yemeni refugees. A similar poll of five hundred mainland Koreans had fifty percent opposed to accepting the refugees, compared to forty percent in favour. The irony of anti-refugee sentiment on Jeju is that the island was the site of one of Korea’s greatest humanitarian disasters, as Seoul launched an anti-communist purge of the island in 1948. Between 15,000 and 30,000 - or ten percent of the island’s population - died as a result and as many as 40,000 were forced to flee to Japan.


It is interesting to note the differences among various age groups in South Korea regarding their opinions about refugees, with older Koreans expressing higher levels of support for refugees than South Korea’s youth - a result that inverts the trends seen in other industrialized countries where young people sport more liberal attitudes than their elders. A study of 20,000 people born between 1995 and 2001 across twenty countries conducted by the Varkey Foundation in 2017 found that young people in South Korea had the highest negative opinion of immigrants, surpassing respondents from all nineteen other countries in the study.

Similarly, a June 30th study published by daily Hankook Ilbo found that South Koreans in their 20s and 30s expressed the highest levels of opposition to accommodating Yemeni refugees (at seventy and sixty-six percent respectively) of any age group surveyed. By way of comparison only forty-three percent of individuals in their forties were opposed to aiding Yemenis.

Higher support among older Koreans can be attributed to their lived experiences as either refugees themselves or the children of refugees, whereas South Korea’s youth is far removed from the poverty that defined South Korea barely fifty years ago. This fact was pointed out by Seoul mayor Park Won-soon who expressed his support for the refugees on Facebook, writing “We, too, were once refugees.”

This sentiment is shared by those Jeju residents who support the efforts of Yemenis to acquire refugee status in South Korea. “They fled for survival and they’re here looking for a better life, so we should take them in,” argues Son Chun-ja, Jeju resident and market stall owner. “It’s the same for Koreans who fled in the past, looking for a better life, it [would have been] horrible if those Koreans [were] kicked out.”

The Bottom Line

Five hundred Yemenis are but a drop in the ocean compared to South Korea's population of over 51 million, but this small group set in motion a tempest that has engulfed the Korean media. The surprise arrival of Yemenis on Jeju island by way of Malaysia and a fortuitous budget airline deal caught South Korea completely off-guard. Unprepared for even such a modest number of migrants, the South Korean government was initially at a loss on how to proceed.

The Korean public on the other hand wasted no time in reacting to the arrival of the Yemenis, with many falling victim to knee-jerk xenophobia, although the efforts of various individuals and organizations to aid the newcomers deserve more attention. Despite having some of the most liberal refugee laws in Asia, the commitment of the South Korean government to follow through on the letter these laws has been tested in 2018. With public opinion divided on whether Seoul should help Yemenis fleeing conflict, a generational split is coming into focus.


Older Koreans, either former refugees themselves or the children of refugees are expressing far higher levels of support for the Yemenis than young Koreans far removed from South Korea's impoverished past. Additionally, resistance to refugees among European and American politicians are having a knock-on effect in South Korea, with anti-refugee groups drawing legitimacy from the words and actions of leaders such as President Donald Trump.

Since Seoul abandoned the idea of Korea as an ethnically homogenous nation in 2007, the South Korean government has been seeking to instil the values and ideas of multiculturalism among its citizens. The arrival of the Yemenis highlights the divide that still needs to be bridged between top-down efforts by the government to change societal attitudes and the ingrained preconceptions about 'Koreanness' in the mind of the general public.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, Radio Free Europe and the Washington Times, among others.