Are Yemenis in Jeju Fake Refugees?


“Fake Refugees Go Home Right Now!” is what a group of protesters were shouting on June 30, at the Gwanghwamun square, an emblematic place for civil protests in South Korea. This time, protestors were opposing Yemeni refugees who had fled their homeland and came to Jeju island. As a result of an ongoing civil war in Yemen that began in 2015, Yemeni asylum seekers entered Jeju, in hopes of applying for a refugee application. However, Jeju locals and many people throughout South Korea are worried about the current situation and are urging for deportation of Yemenis.

Prior to the event, an online petition insisting for the abolishment of South Korea’s Refugee Act was posted to the Cheong Wa Dae (Blue House) website on June 13. This has been signed by 714,000 people, arguing for either strengthening the security check or abandoning the whole policy. One comment said, “Out of all the places in Europe, which is a close continent from their country, why would they come here to Asia?”

Se-woong Koo, publisher of the online magazine Korea Exposé, said in an interview with Public Radio International that the Yemenis were trying to look for Asian countries that have signed to the UN Refugee Convention; South Korea being one of them. “At first, many of them actually ended up in Kuala Lumpur” Koo said. However, since the visa-free tourist access became unavailable in Malaysia, they have found alternatives in Jeju, where the government allows access to Jeju for one month. The stay is a combination of the visa-free program and available job positions found online and through job fairs from the Immigration Council.

Since over half a million people signed the petition, the Korean Ministry of Justice responded to the public through an online video. Minister Sang-ki Park, emphasized that abolishing the Refugee Act is equivalent to pulling out of the U.N. Refugee Convention, which could be related to abandoning the agreed security process and the international responsibility of South Korea. “The visa-free access system cannot be abolished by the Ministry of Justice alone; we will negotiate with Jeju government more,” Park said. For the problem regarding “fake refugees” the United Nations Human Rights Council will instruct the Korean Ministry of Justice to have more professional translators, shortening the process and clarifying some of the distinctions.

Recently, on Sept. 14, the Jeju Immigration Office released a statement that it will give one year of a humanitarian residence permit to 23 of 484 Yemeni refugees. This means that Yemenis were denied asylum but allowed to stay in the country up to a year because of humanitarian reasons. The pending issue will still be updated, as this was the first result from refugee applications.