SEOUL — South Korea denied refugee status Wednesday to hundreds of Yemeni asylum seekers who had fled their war-torn country, allowing them to stay only on one-year humanitarian visas.
More than 500 Yemenis arrived on the resort island of Jeju earlier this year, taking advantage of the island’s visa-free tourism policy. But their presence sparked an anti-immigrant backlash in ethnically homogenous South Korea.
On Wednesday, Seoul’s Justice Ministry granted 339 Yemenis one-year humanitarian permits to stay, acknowledging that their “right to life and personal liberty” would be put at risk if they were deported.
The ministry rejected permits for 34 others who face criminal charges or were judged to have sought asylum for economic reasons, and it postponed a decision on 85 others.
The 339 will now be allowed to leave Jeju and travel to the Korean mainland. Their visas will be subject to review in a year if they wish to extend their stays.
Advocacy groups and lawyers condemned the decision, saying it will hardly address the “precarious” situation the refugees face.
“The judicial outcome appears to be a political decision rather than a legal conclusion based on objective principles,” said Lee Il, a human rights lawyer with the Seoul-based Refugee Rights Network.
Last year, South Korea’s Justice Ministry completed reviews for 6,015 asylum seekers and rejected all but 91 of them. It granted stay permits to 23 other Yemenis in September but has yet to grant refugee status to any of the 481 Yemenis who have applied for it so far. Some Yemenis managed to leave Jeju for the mainland before the government crackdown and have not applied for asylum yet.
“South Korea confers refugee status to only around 1 percent of applicants annually, marking one of lowest refugee acceptance rates among developed nations,” Lee said. “Even considering such limited acceptance in the past, it is appalling how not a single Yemeni applicant was granted refugee status at this time.”
Meanwhile, more than 1,200 Syrians staying in South Korea on humanitarian permits do not have proper access to medical care or education and cannot invite their families to join them, Lee said. The “very thin” social safety net has made the Yemenis’ status insecure, he added.
Kim Seong-in, who led support for Yemenis in Jeju for the Refugee Rights Network, said it was the first time that such substantial public antipathy has emerged in South Korea over the refugee issue.
“In this landmark decision that will set standards for South Korea’s future policy toward refugees, the government took a largely defensive position in a passive response to public sentiment,” he said. “It is very regrettable how the judiciary failed to establish a fair judicial standard for dealing with the refugee issue out of shortsighted concerns about the popular response.”
Jeju, an island better known for beach resorts, coral reefs and volcanic landscapes, was one of the few places that did not require advance visas for Yemenis, and they arrived by the hundreds earlier this year after a budget airline offered direct flights from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia — figuring it would be a springboard into mainland South Korea.
Their hopes were dashed when South Korea quickly blocked them from leaving the island, then dropped Jeju’s visa-free status for Yemenis. Most of the refugees are men, but some are families with children.