After evaluating 458 applicants from Yemeni refugees seeking asylum, South Korea decided Oct. 17 not to accept any, denying 34 applications and leaving 85 more for further review.
However, of the nearly 460 applicants, around 340 have been allowed to remain temporarily and move freely within South Korea under the humanitarian aid condition by the government. Under this condition, refugees who passed the evaluation can stay in the country for one year and are allowed to renew their stay at the end; however, they have not been officially granted refugee status.
At the center of the refugee controversy lies the Korean tropical island Jeju, often dubbed the Hawaii of Korea. In order to boost tourism, Jeju removed the visa requirement for most nations back in 2002. Beginning in 2016, refugees fleeing the siege in Yemen started to enter Jeju via Malaysia.
Between January and May of this year, 527 refugees from Yemen arrived at Jeju. This unprecedented influx was overwhelming for the municipality, and in response, the Korean government changed the no-visa policy to bar Yemenis without visas. Additionally, Yemeni applicants already on the island were banned from going to mainland Korea.
South Korea has a very short history of accepting refugees in the wake of international crises—the first time being in 2001 when they accepted an Ethiopian missionary. South Korea now accepts around 100 refugees per year.
In 2016, the exact number was 121, with refugees hailing from countries like Myanmar, Ethiopia, Yemen and Iran. Though the number is small in comparison to a country such as Jordan, which hosts 2.7 million refugees, the topic has sparked heated discourse in one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world. It also shines a light on the issue of the Korean government’s willingness and capability of evaluating hundreds of refugee applicants.
According to Korean news agency Hankook Ilbo, there are only 39 public officials in South Korea reviewing refugee applications, which explains the long evaluation processes the applicants have to endure.