Stealthily, we moved from the edges,
Drawn by dreams of plenitude,
Leaving our homes at the margins
Of the deserted flatlands,
Where nothing grows
And what we had of wheels and cogs
Grow rust and harbour cobwebs.
It was fear that urged us on,
Hacking at our hearts,
Fear of the demented power,
That fed upon its own illusions
And cut the naval string
Which bound us to our Tribal Story.
We were stripped at gunpoint
At the precise point of intersection
Between what passed as frontier of the
We carry nothing with us
But the golden memories
Of a love that had once
Bound us together as a people,
The incense of a gifted race
Which had ministered a fruitful land for a thousand years
And we carry, like a sacrament,
The myrrh of our Nation’s woundedness
In which is mixed the wisdom of our ancestors.
This is who we are.
These are our gifts,
As we stand before your walls
And if this is not enough
To gain entry to your land,
Let the sun come down
Upon our dry bones
And the moon carve us a grave
“Refugees” by Patrick Purnell SJ
Where are we?
According to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967), refugees are those under persecution due to racial, religious, national, social, or political discrimination. The “Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees” states that all signatory nations must provide refugees with certain rights such as freedom of movement, moving properties, and work. Currently, there is no legal treatment for nations that do not observe the protocol they signed. Out of 193 UN member nations, around 140 are signatories, but whether they have abided by the clauses remains a controversial issue. Under such circumstance, there are around 40 million undertreated refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) around the globe. a considerable number of which are in Korea.
The result is the increase of refugees undertreated, overworked and taken advantage of. Regarding the inferior situations of refugees, Korea is not an exception. Ever since refugees entered the land of Korea, they have not been welcomed. Research results and statistics from NCNCEN and UNHCR clearly show how depressing refugee protection in Korea has been. Out of 2,900 accumulated applicants, ranging from Burmese, Ugandans, and Congolese to Nigerians, for official refugee status, only 1,000 remain in Korea, for others have been sent back to their mother countries not having been accepted as refugees. Only 298 are registered official refugees in Korea. As a nation that officially signed the protocol, it is desirable that Korea observe the required responsibilities.
What brings them here? Why would people from Africa and Southeast Asia come all the way to Korea to find shelter? Muriel, a political refugee, tells us how inevitable it is for a refugee to find haven in other nations.
“After I graduated in Congo, I started to work at the American Embassy. I worked as a receptionist, in charge of receiving guests and opening letters to check if there were any letters from terrorists. While I was working there, Rwandans moved to Congo because of an internal war in Rwanda. Conflicts arose between Congolese and Rwandans. To make matters worse, the Congolese government thought I was a spy, for I was the one who opened all the letters that arrived in the American Embassy.
The Congolese governement started searching for me. They called my parents, friends, and all my acquaintances. I had to hide, for I was to be killed if I were caught. In a few weeks, the manager of my company told me that I could escape from Congo. He would take me on a plane to another country, where I would be safe. I did not tell my family and friends, and I did not take anything with me. No clothes, no bags. By the time I got my passport and opened it on the plane, I found that I had a VISA for Republic of Korea. The plane was heading to Korea, and I had no idea where that was.
The moment I arrived in Korea, I was in panic. I did not know anything about Korea. And there seemed no one I could talk to about my situation. Fortunately, I met a refugee from Nigeria who introduced me to the refugee community in *Itaewon*, where I got to meet Congolese people. One of the community members knew about PNAN, a shelter for refugees run by a group of Christians. There I was given opportunities to learn Korean and get financial support.
I also learned through the Congolese refugee community that I could be admitted as a refugee, although it was not a pleasant process. It took me years and involved a lot of people’s help, including a lawyer.
On Saturdays, Ms. Park Jin-suk came to teach us Korean at PNAN. She later founded an NGO called EcoFemme to help migrant women in Korea. With the help of EcoFemme, I could settle as an artist. I do not think I can tell my story without using the word ‘miracle.’ It was all God’s doing. I have not told my sons yet about how I came to Korea because they are too young, but I know that I will tell them, one day, with pride and joy that I have survived and God has guided me till today.”
Although she is now settled in Korea, her life is not without problems. Muriel’s children want to learn how to swim, play the piano, and speak English, but such classes are too expensive. It is hard for refugees to find high-paying jobs, although most of them are college graduates. Most refugee families face labor problems. Kim Jong-chul, a human rights lawyer, states: “Refugees who just arrive in Korea do not have a lot of choices but to work under harsh labor conditions. Some are often mistreated and exploited by employers. And often, a lot of refugees cannot work at all, because the refugees who are not officially admitted are not eligible for any kind of work in Korea under the current immigration law.”
Muriel says she would like to go back to Congo. “I miss everything about Congo; the people, the fruits, the weather, and the sense of belonging.” Yet, she says it would not be until after the conflict is over that she would be able to go back. Bound to stay here as a refugee, she longs for the day when she can return home.
Steps Korea has taken
The Korean government does not provide the necessary support for incoming refugees. In fact, the new refugee law established in 2012 is the only way through which the government interferes with admission and protection of refugees. Yet, it is crucial for nations that accept refugees to have institutions that look after refugees. The institutions that carry out the role in Korea are NGOs and people who put their time and effort to help refugees live the lives they deserve. Largely, they are PNAN, EcoFemme, APIL, and NANCEN. NGOs can help to bring changes to the society in various ways.
It was in 1993 that Lee Ho-taek, a Christian social activist, established PNAN, the first refugee center in Korea. Ranging from welfare, education, and occupation to financial support, the NGO has cared for refugees from North Korea and other countries around the globe. For example, PNAN runs Saturday Freedom Ground School that teaches Korean to refugee adults, *Taekwondo* to kids, and provides food to families.
Park Jin-suk (Head, EcoFemme), first served as a Korean teacher at PNAN on Saturdays. “I could not forget the refugees I helped. It was as if my life was destined to care for them now that they have become a big part of my life,” Park states. When she realized the need for a separate institution especially for refugee and migrant women, Park established an NGO called EcoFemme in 2010. EcoFemme bears the purpose of helping women become socially and economically independent as they settle as artists. EcoFemme helps them learn arts and provides space needed for artwork. At the EcoFemme shop in *Hong-dae* the works are on sale at fair prices and exhibitions of some of the works take place in Café Ray in Daechi-dong, where many madams purchase paintings. Groups of Vietnamese, Bangladeshi, Congolese and Mongolians have regular meetings in which they create artwork and learn Korean.
Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL) is the newest among the NGOs that help refugees. The representative of APIL is Park’s husband. Having participated in trials to ensure the rights of refugees in Korea and to bring their families to Korea from their home countries, Kim is very familiar with working for refugees. “I used to be a volunteer for refugees before I became a lawyer. I wanted to be a lawyer who fights for their rights.” In 2011, he founded APIL because he wanted to focus on refugee- and migrant-related issues. He has been helping refugees at trials, those suffering under exploitation by Korean MNCs, and those kept at immigration centers.
It can be said that PNAN, EcoFemme and APIL are three thriving organizations crucial for the protection of refugees in Korea. Even though they are few in number, their influence in the Korean society cannot be underestimated. It is expected that they will continue to take strides in helping refugees and providing them with opportunities they have so far been deprived of.
Where are we heading?
One of the problems refugees face as they live in Korea is education. According to Park of EcoFemme, Korea lacks a separate education system for refugees, which is of utmost necessity. It is very important that there are specially trained teachers particularly responsible for refugee children. Also, there should be a law that allows the refuge children have meals at school and participate in club activities despite their financial difficulty. Such obstacles have long hindered their learning experiences, and there needs to be a legal measure that can create a better education environment.
Another problem that remains unsolved is the labor issue. A lot of times, refugees are work under harsh labor conditions because they do not have labor insurance and they are not accepted for high-paying jobs. Regardless of whether they went to college and had respectable jobs in their home countries, in Korea they are mostly considered as factory laborers. Since there is no specific law that guarantees their working rights which the employers are bound to observe, exploitation and harassment are rampant. Laws that ensure labor rights for refugee workers are in dire need.
Yet, the greatest reason why Korea experiences a severe refugee protection problem is the absence of refugee law, which slows the refugee admission process and hinders the protection of their rights after entering the country. . Still today, it can take refugees about three months to almost five years to be accepted as official refugees in Korea. This is a serious issue, for admission as refugees is the most fundamental step before any kind of further protection can be gained. However, interviews to gain official refugees status have been carried out by officials inappropriately. Often, officials treat refugees rudely and refuse to listen to or reason with them. In short, the overly complicated process, absence of official translators who can represent the refugees during the admission process, and prohibition of recording the admission interviews have been great obstacles. Hopefully, the establishment of a refugee law which is expected to take effect from July, 2013 would put an end to these obstacles and allow the refugees to work even during the admission process.
Koreans’ misunderstanding and fear of refugees has been another barrier. When the new refugee law was established in 2012, a lot of Koreans expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision. They argued that letting more refugees into the country would result in the escalation of the number of foreign crime and shortage of jobs for Koreans. Such dissatisfaction is not reasonable however, according to Kim. Because there has been no evidence to prove increase in crime and reduction in work due to the influx of refugees, the issue is yet to be examined. Yet, Kim emphasizes that even if that is the case, Korea is legally responsible for taking care of refugees. To refuse to help them is to break the international law. It is desirable for us to accept refugees and to face any conflict that arises with objectivity.
* * *
Korea was long ago a country from which thousands of refugees were generated. The Japanese colonization of Korea and the Korean War resulted in thousands of Korean refugees. The independence heroes we remember such as Kim Ku, Ahn Joong-geun, Ahn Chang-ho, and Yoon Dong-gil were also refugees who faced the inevitable challenge to leave the country and hide in other nations such as China. Today, Korea is a country where refugees come to find shelter. Just as our ancestors and heroes found shelters outside Korea, it is our duty to return the favor they had earned long ago. It is of great importance that we give respect to those who now seek shelter in Korea.