A was oppressed for engaging in anti-government activities in Ethiopia, so he left his country with a passport he borrowed from a friend in 2016. He applied for refugee status after entering South Korea. When it was revealed that A was not traveling with his own passport, he was detained for a year in a foreigners’ shelter. He was recognized as a refugee in 2017, but due to delayed administrative procedures, he was not issued an ID card for over a year. He could not open a mobile phone subscription or a bank account. A presented a government notice recognizing his refugee status instead of an ID card, but could not find adequate employment because the employers did not trust him. He managed to get by working in one to two-week part-time positions in places like a shoe factory. He could not afford the rent, so he moved from shelter to shelter set up by human rights groups. A was finally issued an ID card this year, and he got a job in a cold-storage company.
Many people who have been recognized as refugees complain that they have a hard time receiving fair treatment in South Korean society. According to the Refugee Act, people recognized as refugees can enjoy the same social security and rights as South Koreans. The Refugee Act stipulates social security (Article 31), basic living security (Article 32), assurance of education (Article 33), social adaptation education (Article 34), recognition of schooling (Article 35), and recognition of qualifications (Article 36) on a level equal to that of Koreans.
But in reality, it is difficult for them to find anything other than simple labor due to barriers of language, culture, and discrimination. Most refugees work in factories, auto repair shops, and dry cleaners. The only things that the Ministry of Justice provides the refugees are two two-page guidelines on the treatment of refugees, one in Korean and one in English.
B is from Cameroon. He was recognized as a refugee in 2010 after entering the country through the U.S. He works as an English teacher at a private English institute in Goyang-si, Gyeonggi-do. He had a hard time finding employment because he was black and because he was from a non-English speaking country, Cameroon. He has a lot to worry even after finding a job. B needs childcare services and services provided by the Multicultural Family Support Center for his children, but he cannot receive them. The individual laws and internal regulations for these services require a “Korean nationality” or “resident registration.” His children cannot receive the state scholarship given to families with more than two children, as well as student loans, which can be reimbursed after employment. He is not eligible for the basic pension, the lifelong education voucher, and loans for the socially vulnerable.
B is worried about his children and wonders if they can live well in the South Korean society. His daughter, who is autistic, was born in the United States. She received an F-1 visa issued for people visiting or joining families, instead of the F-2 visa issued to refugees, so she could not enter a school for the disabled. His son, who was born in South Korea, has no nationality. Foreign children born in South Korea have to declare their birth at the embassy of their parents’ country of origin.
It is also difficult for them to adapt as a member of Korean society. C was recognized as a refugee last year after requesting refugee status in 2015 to escape the political persecution in Ghana. C looks after his family working as a courier. C is not fluent in Korean. His Korean colleagues ignore his greetings and do not respond. C said, “I think the Koreans need time to accept me,” and added, “The saddest thing is that I can’t make friends.”
The Ministry of Justice runs the Korean Immigration and Integration Program (KIIP) to help foreigners seeking a Korean nationality or permanent residence adapt to the Korean society. However, the ministry’s guidelines on the treatment of refugees only mentions that the refugees should visit the immigration and social integration website (Soci-Net) or contact the agency operating the social integration program. Even if they log onto the website, the introduction and the application process are all in Korean, so most refugees cannot read it. Also, it is hard for refugees without access to the Internet to apply.
It is almost impossible to have degrees or qualifications from one’s native country to be recognized in South Korea. Refugees often don’t have their diplomas or certificates with them when they come to Korea. They are cut off from their families back home, so it is difficult for them to obtain letters of certification. They cannot visit their countries or their embassies, because they are “refugees.”
The situation is worse for those labeled, “humanitarian sojourner.” D’s family were Christians in Pakistan, a Muslim state. When his father died in a terrorist attack by Islamic fundamentalists, D fled to South Korea in 2015 and applied for refugee status. Last year, D, his wife, and daughters were recognized as humanitarian sojourners. However, South Korea did not recognize the status of D’s son and daughter-in-law and their son and daughter, so they had to reapply for refugee status. The ten people live together in a 60m2house in Gyeonggi-do. D and his wife cannot work because they suffer from severe hypertension and lung disease. D’s son supports the family by engaging in an illegal part-time job in places like dyeing mills. He has failed to receive over four million won in wages for three months’ labor, but there is no way for him to get the money. The monthly rent of 500,000 won and the cost of medical treatment are a burden on their lives.
The status of humanitarian sojourner was established as a safeguard provided by the state for people at risk of serious human rights infringement in their countries of origin. Humanitarian sojourners have to extend their G-1 visa every year. Since most employers avoid the G-1 visa, which in principle cannot seek employment, it is difficult for humanitarian sojourners to find employment. They are also excluded from the national basic living security, so it is difficult for them to get by. Kim Dae-kwon, the head of Friends of Asia said, “We need to establish a swift support system for refugees like the one we have for North Korean refugees,” and added, “Humanitarian sojourners can hardly receive any social welfare, and it’s questionable as to whether this is humanitarian at all.”
Cho Young-kwan (a lawyer at Duksu Law Offices), secretary-general of Friends, a center for immigrants, said, “Instead of criticizing the support for refugees as a waste of tax payers’ money, we should see it as an opportunity to improve the status of South Korea as an advanced country, human-rights wise.”