Korea will continue to accept refugees, but screening will get tougher

By Kim Bo-eun

The government is set to continue accepting refugees requesting asylum here but toughen the screening process, as a means of dealing with rising complaints over a large influx of people into the country seeking refugee status this year.

Public concern developed after a large number of Yemenis came to Jeju Island through a visa waiver system that is now no longer applicable to Yemeni nationals. Separately, the number of refugee applicants has grown from 1,574 in 2013 to 9,942 last year, according to data from Nancen, a human rights center for refugees.

A recent survey showed most of the concerns centered on the issue of spending taxpayers’ money on refugees, as well as possible conflicts arising from cultural differences and safety issues. However, a type of irrational prejudice against refugees and fear that they may pose security threats also appear to have developed.

The government unveiled its plan as a response to a petition to Cheong Wa Dae with the largest number of supporters. The petition called for the refugee law, Jeju Island’s visa waiver system and the permit system for refugee applicants to be abolished, or for stricter standards to be applied. A total of 714,875 people signed the petition.

The government’s stance is that it cannot abolish refugee laws or withdraw from the international convention on refugees.

The Ministry of Justice, in charge of refugee policies, will seek for refugees to settle and find jobs here, instead of only providing support and protection.

“If the Yemeni who arrived here are acknowledged as refugees, we will make it mandatory for them to receive education on South Korean laws, the culture and settlement, as well as introduce a mentoring system, to assist their settlement and take care of them,” Justice Minister Park Sang-ki said.

“We have decided to draw up policies so that the refugees do not passively receive assistance and protection but are able to obtain jobs and support themselves here,” he said in response to the petition on Wednesday.

The minister earlier said the government needed to consider its duty as a member state of an international convention on refugees, but that its priority is protecting its people, in a meeting with lawmakers of the legislation and judiciary committee last month.

Meanwhile, the government will also seek to fix the existing refugee screening system, which has been criticized for taking too long.

The ministry will increase the number of workers in the screening process including interpreters, Park said.

At the same time, it will beef up the identification process for refugee applicants, as a means to screen “fake refugees,” and conduct strict reviews on whether they were involved in drug trade or violent crimes.

The ministry will also draw up articles that will punish brokers for facilitating illicit acts.

“We need realistic and rational refugee policies that fit South Korea’s circumstances and carry out the country’s duty according to international conventions,” he said, adding the ministry welcomes views from civic groups, the religious and legal sectors as well as local governments.

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