JEJU, South Korea — This is the end of the line for hundreds of Yemeni refugees fleeing war 5,000 miles away.
The setting is a new one in a world of migrants and asylum seekers on the move: a resort island off South Korea’s southern coast where tourists come to dive the reefs, golf and eat local seafood specialties.
But the wider story unfolding on Jeju Island is familiar. It is about desperate people looking for any loopholes or undiscovered pathways on the migrant trails crisscrossing the globe, seeking a place willing to take them in.
It is how Africans have shown up on the U.S.-Mexico border after an overland trek from Brazil, how Syrians came ashore on Greek beaches in 2015 and how Iranians are among those in holding camps on the Pacific island nation of Nauru. And how South Korea is now thrust into a refugee quandary that caught it by surprise.
Jeju’s improbable turn began in early spring.
Word was out already of Jeju’s tourist-friendly visa policies, making it one of the few places that did not require advance visas for Yemenis. A few Yemenis reached Jeju in recent years to make claims for refugee status in South Korea.
What changed this year was a new direct flight to Jeju on a budget airline from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, which also grants Yemenis a visa on arrival. At first, a trickle of Yemenis arrived. Then many more — all willing to risk sometimes all their savings to flee more than four years of warfare and deepening humanitarian miseries.
The hope was that Jeju would be a springboard to reach Seoul and apply for refugee protections. But that proved wrong. South Korean officials quickly blocked Yemenis from leaving the island, and on June 1, Jeju dropped Yemen from the no-visa rules to join a handful of other countries including Syria, Iran and Nigeria.
The more than 500 Yemenis who made it to Jeju before the door closed — mostly men, but some families with children — are stranded. They can’t reach the mainland, and few have the money or inclination to return to Malaysia.
“We are not wanted anywhere,” said Ahmed Abdu, 23, who left Ibb in central Yemen in April on a more than $2,000 trip through Jordan and Qatar, then to Kuala Lumpur and on to Jeju. “America doesn’t want us. Europe doesn’t want us. Saudi Arabia doesn’t want us. When we heard about Jeju, we thought, ‘Maybe this is a place that can save us.’ ”
He paused to think about what he had just said. “We can’t leave. That is true,” he added. “But we are alive. We are not worrying about war. That is something very good.”
Abdu, like many Yemenis in rebel-held territory, was caught in the middle. His neighborhood was blasted by waves of Saudi-led airstrikes — using U.S.-made warplanes and weaponry — against rebel fighters, known as Houthis, controlling most of northern Yemen. Riyadh and its allies claim the Houthis receive direct support from Iran, something Tehran officials deny. Abdu did not want to talk about how many relatives and friends had been killed. “Many,” he said.
The tipping point came after Houthi forces tried to conscript young men in his area, he said. “I knew there was no way I could remain.”
Yemen continues to sink deeper into chaos. A push by Saudi-led forces to claim the port of Hodeida, a critical entry point for food, fuel, medicine and other supplies, has touched off another civilian exodus, and international aid groups warn that an all-out fight for the city could inflict another staggering blow.
At first, Abdu and the other Yemenis arriving in Jeju, which has a population of about 600,000, were left to fend for themselves. They piled into hostels, cheap hotels and campgrounds, getting an occasional meal from a restaurant or volunteers.
Slowly, some help has taken shape.
On Monday, more than 200 Yemenis received free health screenings conducted by the Korean Red Cross and lined up for jobs arranged by Jeju officials while their refugee status was being assessed, which could take months or longer. Some took tough work that Koreans do not want — on fishing boats or fish farms making the legal minimum wage of about $1,500 a month. The luckier ones found jobs in restaurant kitchens. A local migrant aid society — which normally deals with Filipinos and other Asians — started Korean language classes for Yemenis.
But the Yemenis in Jeju have opened a difficult conversation in a nation where only a small fraction of refugees have been approved to stay since the 1990s. Last year, South Korea completed reviews of 6,015 refugee claims, rejecting all but 91 of them, according to the Justice Ministry. Eleven of the Yemenis who passed through Jeju in earlier years were among those granted refugee status.
“About 500 people from Yemen may not seem like a lot for countries that have dealt with hundreds of thousands, even millions, of refugees and people fleeing war,” said Lee Il, a rights attorney with Seoul-based Advocates for Public Interest Law. “Here, it has forced people to think about the wider world of suffering and, in a rich country, how we fit in.”
On May 31, the Yemeni arrivals sparked perhaps the first anti-
immigrant march in Jeju, an island still identified by many South Koreans as the scene of bloody anti-communist purges by the U.S.-backed government in Seoul before the Korean War. The demonstrators complained that Jeju’s visa-free program has been “abused as a gateway for illegal entry” into South Korea.
In Seoul, an online petition calling for a pause in the acceptance of refugees drew more than 200,000 shows of support Monday on the presidential Blue House website — meaning the government must issue a response within 30 days. The answer will lack legal force but can indicate a direction for policy.
Kim Eui-keum, a spokesman for the presidential office, said Wednesday that police patrols on Jeju will be stepped up to “avoid unnecessary clashes or interference.”
Jeju’s governor, Won Hee-
ryong, said Monday that he believes authorities and private businesses should band together to help the Yemenis.
“Jeju can set an example for the first refugee crisis our country is facing,” he said at a meeting.
Still, resources are thin. There was only one immigration investigator on Jeju to hear refugee cases when the Yemenis began to arrive. Just two people on the island spoke Arabic. On Monday, one of them led the translation for a crash seminar on South Korean culture for about 100 Yemenis, all men.
“I thought I’d be in Jeju maybe two weeks and then head on to Seoul,” said Gamdan, a 36-year-old from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, who arrived in Jeju last month. “It was a big surprise when I learned that I wasn’t going anywhere.”
Gamdan, who gave only his first name, serves as an Arabic-English translator for the increasing number of groups on Jeju who need it.
Sister Cristina Gal, part of a Roman Catholic aid service, handed a cellphone to Gamdan.
“Tell her that we found her a house to live in,” she said.
Gamdan told the Yemeni woman on the phone the good news — someone in Jeju had offered her a place to stay for at least a month.
In the next room, a South Korean volunteer quizzed Yunes Melhi Naji, a 27-year-old waiting for a free dental check for an aching molar. The volunteer, who knew almost nothing of Ramadan, wanted to know more about the Muslim month of dawn-to-dusk fasting that had just ended.
“But you must drink water during the day?” the woman asked in English.
“Nothing,” answered Naji.
“But no water ever?”
“No, ma’am,” he said. “The Ramadan fast is no problem. What is a problem is being here without work and not knowing what will happen.”
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.