What South Korea’s reaction to Yemeni refugees really tells us


Anti-immigration activists attend a protest against a group of asylum-seekers from Yemen, in Seoul on June 30, 2018. (AFP)

It has taken less than a thousand refugees fleeing Yemen’s grinding three-year-old war for prosperous, seemingly globalised South Korea to revert to fiercely xenophobic notions of a country built upon “ethnic homogeneity” and “pure blood.”

South Korea’s newly visible animus to Muslims and Arabs comes at an interesting point in the global conversation about uninvited migrants.

Western leaders, particularly President Donald Trump in the US, Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Italy’s newly elected far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, continue to demonise non-white migrants as a threat to their countries’ physical security and cultural certainties. On July 12, Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl told his German and Italian counterparts there was a need to end the very right of migrants to claim asylum on European soil.

This is something that South Korea, a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, is contemplating, especially with respect to people from Yemen.

The Yemenis attracted attention and active hostility after 552 arrived on South Korea’s tourist island of Jeju between January and May. They had taken advantage of Jeju’s policy of allowing visa-free entry and 30 days’ stay to tourist arrivals, and they sought asylum because South Korea was one of the few countries in Asia to sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. South Korea recognised its first refugee in 2001, nine years after signing the convention, and first granted citizenship to a recognised refugee in 2010. The new South Korean citizen was a male Ethiopian refugee.

The Yemeni arrivals on Jeju, however, were looked upon with less favour. When they tried to travel on to the capital Seoul, where a small Yemeni community already lives, hundreds of South Koreans protested against the new arrivals’ presence, their freedom of movement and the very act of taking in refugees, especially Muslims.

Nearly 700,000 people signed a petition on South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s website calling for their country to tighten refugee laws. The petition argued that unlike Europe, South Korea had never colonised other countries and consequently had “no such moral obligation” to grant sanctuary to the world’s war-weary, harried and dispossessed.

More to the point, as Se-Woong Koo of the online magazine Korea Expose recently explained, there was “a significant amount of Islamophobia.” Se-Woong said that many South Koreans felt “Islam is a religion that is simply not compatible with Korean society. They also say Muslims could come and potentially endanger the safety of the South Korean public.”

Somewhat dispiritingly, educated millennials seemed the most opposed to helping the Yemenis. News agencies reported South Korean college students’ dark view of Arabs’ life and proclivities. Park Seo-young, a 20-year-old college student from Daejeon, South Korea’s fifth largest metropolis, said: “I heard that Yemen has a very poor record in women’s rights… and I’m afraid that the island will become more dangerous than before and the crime rate will go up.” Han Eui-mi, also a student, questioned the Yemenis’ intentions in coming “all the way to Korea when there are many countries nearby.”

Even though President Moon is a former human rights lawyer, his government did not argue the Yemenis’ case on compassionate grounds or point to South Korea’s minuscule intake of asylum-seekers. According to the NGO Human Rights Watch, South Korea has accepted only 2.5% of all the asylum seekers it has screened since 1994, and that figure does not include North Korean defectors.

The South Korean government did not urge its people to think rationally. It could have justifiably said that the numbers of Yemenis seeking help was small, no more than 980 people; that they were entitled to compassion considering the scale and horror of the crisis in Yemen; and that Koreans should remember they themselves had sought refuge abroad after the 1950 war.

Instead, the government responded to the anti-Yemeni sentiment with hardline measures. It quickly added Yemen to the list of countries whose citizens cannot enter South Korea’s island of Jeju without a visa. On June 29, the Justice Ministry said it would expedite the processing of the Yemenis’ asylum claims, and would push to overhaul the country’s Refugee Act so that foreigners don’t take “advantage of the refugee system for economic reasons or residency.”

The Yemenis’ arrival in South Korea has laid bare the faultline between its deeply held view of a racially unsullied, ethnically homogenous community and the seemingly progressive and prosperous society that deals confidently with the world.

Until 2007, when the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination deplored the use of terms such as “pure blood” and “mixed blood” in school textbooks, South Korean children were taught that national unity depended on racial purity.

But, South Korea’s reaction to the Yemenis on Jeju shows something else too. There is a very real and spreading fear of Muslims and Arabs much beyond the West. And it is increasingly being normalised.