The Border Lives: South Korea, 6 Dead Girls, and 500 Refugees

Sea currents know no borders.

For centuries they have carried thoughts and language, flotsam and jetsam, and small boats with their human cargos from Jeju Island to the Korean peninsula, the Japanese archipelago, the Chinese continent, and farther destinations afield. In 1948, the currents carried bodies. Nameless and faceless, their identities dissolved by the sea, they washed up one by one on the shores of the newly formed South Korea, causalities of a war not of their own doing. 

In 2018, bodies have returned to the shores of Jeju again, this time from a war half the world over. 

At the start of this year, over 540 Yemenis landed in Jeju Island, a warm, green island just off the southern coast of Korea and accessible to tourists via its no-visa visit policy. They have found their way to Korea for individual reasons, but all share the intent to be granted safe harbour as refugee seekers, and if able, to reach the South Korean mainland to begin the asylum process. Their arrival brought the global humanitarian crisis of the Arab Winter to Korea with an immediate intimacy; a country that has been largely untouched by refugee flows outside its own peninsula, until now.

Significant Korean public attention has been given to the Yemenis residence on Jeju, some supportive, though most overwhelmingly negative; over 700,000 South Koreans signed an anti-refugee petition in July asking their government to “put Koreans before refugees.”  Since the summer, there has been a growing movement of antagonistic protests against the Jeju Provincial Government’s “friendly” refugee policy, which popular belief says is protecting “fake refugees.” In response, the Blue House, the seat of South Korea’s government, has denied asylum to all Yemenis currently on Jeju in October, instead granting 339 of them stay on one-year humanitarian visas, whilst keeping an additional 85 cases under review.

The humanitarian visa, although allowing travel between Jeju and the main peninsula, prohibits them from many of the benefits provided to recognised asylum seekers such as health care, stable work, and the rights for family members to join them. “We allow them to stay for one year,” a representative from the Justice Ministry told the New York Times. “But if the situation in Yemen improves enough for them to return home, we will revoke their permit to stay or will not extend it.” In May, the government removed Yemen from its country list of visa-free entry. 

This sentiment of impermanency, often evoked within the language of refugee policy, highlights the culture of fear that is often too loud to allow for any other voices to be heard. “From what I hear, the refugees rape girls as young as 10 years old. I think that scares a lot of young women,” a resident of Jeju told a reporter in July, in agreement with the recent popular claims of Yemenis as potential Arab extremists, sex traffickers, or job-stealing illegals. “Koreans are still struggling yet the government is providing aid to these outsiders.” In further response to the Blue House petition, Justice Minister Park Sang-ki released an official statement in August promising increased efforts to “root out fake refugees” through drug-tests and criminal record checks. Whilst he agreed that the Yemenis on Jeju island do in fact have legal rights, refugees who “contravene the social order” are at risk for deportation. 

Image courtesy of MoolrinPhoto via Flickr, © 2018, some rights reserved.

South Korea’s refugee policy is only one of many that has been influenced by the larger political quest for recognising only the ‘authentic and true’ refugee narrative. Women and children are often deemed acceptable representations of asylum seekers, as their experiences in their home-country are largely considered horrifying and genuine. Young men, like those that largely make up the Yemeni population on Jeju, convey the opposite sense, unleashing a barrage of images of dark bodies flooding through borders from even darker spaces. Without a family beside them, they constitute economic migrants, not refugees. 

Young, female South Koreans, a demographic often found to bolster the liberal, feminist political space, have been at the very forefront of public outcry against the Yemeni ‘occupation’, drawing on myths of Muslim men that are conceptualised and packaged for consumption in European popular media. In July and August, a trending hashtag on Korean Twitter feeds, “#제주도여성실종사건 (“Missing Women in Jeju-do”), brought sensational attention to six women that were found dead in Jeju over the summer, their ‘murders’ blamed on the refugee population. These claims were later found to be falsified, but the damage was done, inciting an atmosphere of rage and fear online and pouring onto the streets. 

“They see our faces, and we don’t look like them,” Hussein Algithi, a young Yemeni refugee, said of the locals. “They don’t like us because we are different.”

“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,” says Park Min-Jung, owner of Olle Tourist Hotel where Algithi and 30 other Yemeni men are staying for the immediate future. “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.”

Despite anti-immigrant sentiment flooding the island, there are those, like Park, who want to help. “We went through the Korean War ourselves. If we ever have to go through a war like that again, we might end up being refugees like them,” a Jeju resident told Asian Boss in July. “So shouldn’t we have some compassion and try to help them out?” Perhaps refugee seekers see Korea as open to their stories of war, as South Korea is well-known in their acceptance of over 1,000 North Koreans annually, providing them with living, education, and work subsidies and re-socialisation programmes. But then again, perhaps this is the reason why South Korea has shut its gates. Out of the 40,400 foreigners who have applied for refugee status since 1994, only 2% have been granted according to the South Korean Ministry of Justice. Within last year alone, just 1% of the 9,900 asylum applications received have been cleared. 

North Koreans are culturally and historically viewed as members of the Korean state, a common peoplehood cleaved in two by politics beyond present reconciliation. They are Korean, and they do not upset the imagined political ideology of South Korean society as harmonious, homogenous, and largely unaffected by the tumultuous global politics of today. However, refugees open up a political space to allow for the rewriting of the socio-political foundations of community and isolation. The country has two choices. Is it willing to open its cultural spaces to bodies bringing their own lives, languages, and beliefs? Or should the state reinforce its borders as to retain its core imagined identity? 

The latter has largely been the course of action taken by the global North today. In his address to the Pledging Conference in Yemen, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, ”As the conflict enters its fourth year, more than 22 million people – three quarters of the population – need humanitarian aid and protection.”

International critics of South Korea’s policy point to a world that is increasingly hostile to freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and in protecting human rights. US President Trump’s drumming mantra of ‘fake news’ has created an international psyche of fear of the unknown, manifested in the global shuttering of borders as the West leaves refugee seekers to go to greater lengths and much more dangerous routes to find safety from civil war and violence.

At the close of a year that perhaps has witnessed the fever pitch of xenophobic hysteria, the persistent alienation of asylum seekers does not seem to be on its way out.

Yet, there is no grand narrative that can be fashioned from the global patterns of refugees other than just this one: that of simple, daily empathy that tie all of us together, a connectedness that Abdo Ahmed, a Yemeni in Jeju, sought out in Korea. He “and others picked South Korea because of their familiarity with Korean cars, dramas and music,” knowing that the country might be less foreign to him then he appeared to them. 

Worldview is constrained only by what we can see. By bringing in more perspective, more voice, and more empathy into our line of vision, perhaps humanity can reenter the fray of international refugee policy. Eun-Kyoung Koh, CEO of Korean-based Global Inner Peace urges the Korean government to reconsider their decision in refusing to provide asylum. “These refugees want to live in their own country. They can eat foods they like, speak their own language, and live in their own homes.” A young Yemeni, remaining nameless and faceless, just like the bodies that left Jeju in 1948, spoke via Asian Boss to South Korea: “We want to tell [the government] that we are a good people. We have a country. When the war is finished, we will go back to our country.” 


Banner image: Image courtesy of MoolrinPhoto via Flickr, © 2018, some rights reserved.