Hundreds of asylum-seekers fleeing the conflict in Yemen thought that the sub-tropical island of Jeju, South Korea, would be a safe refuge from what the United Nations has declared ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.’ Instead, locals have banded together in South-Korea’s first organized anti-asylum movement, parading through the streets, calling to “kick out fake refugees.” A petition with more than 700,000 signatures demanding the rejection of refugees and asylum-seekers puts pressure on the Moon administration to act.
The anti-asylum fervour that has swept the island, once considered a vacation spot, appears rife with misconception and discrimination bias. Locals fear invasion – despite Yemenis making up a tiny percentage of the island’s population – and have fallen victim to destructive rhetoric calling Yemeni asylum-seekers “potential criminals” and “migrants stealing jobs.” What appears to be an instance of xenophobia in Jeju has also given rise to what can only be perceived as blatant racism from some who spout anti-Islamic proclamations that Yemeni men “take many wives”, “treat women like sex slaves and … beat them.” According to a New York Times article by Choe Sang-Hun, the worst incite fear with warnings of an invasion of “Arab terrorists or rapists.”
On June 1st, President Moon, under pressure to intervene, added Yemen to a small list of countries that are excluded from Jeju’s visa-free entry policy – preventing any more Yemeni refugees from reaching the island and claiming refugee status. Asylum-seekers in Jeju were also prohibited from leaving to enter the South Korean mainland; effectively confining them to the island.
The hysteria over the 560 or so escapees from the war in Yemen who made it to Jeju province took President Moon Jae-in by surprise. Many, including the President, remember the important role that South Korea played in accepting wartime refugees from North Korea after WWII. One government response to the petition reminded citizens that the current South Korean government owes its origins to the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea – a government-in-exile established by Korean refugees who had fled Japanese colonial rule. Justice Minister Park Sang-ki reiterated that the Yemeni refugees had arrived in South Korea legally and that despite the petition’s demands, the nation would not close their borders to Yemeni refugees. Minister Park pointed out that this would mean a withdrawal from the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which they have certain international obligations.
The response on Jeju is disheartening to see when the crisis in Yemen is so devastating. While the opposition to asylum-seekers is not the response of all on Jeju, it is the majority’s, and it’s enough to ostracise a minority that is already fleeing persecution from their homeland. Many of the reasons that South Koreans voice for their distrust of Yemeni asylum-seekers are neither founded, nor reasonable. With no refugee status and confined to an island off of the mainland, how are asylum-seekers on Jeju ‘stealing jobs?’ Just how many men – many of whom have their own families to look after – are attacking women? The fearful, hostile reaction on this small resort island is reminiscent of colonial times. Unfortunately, it is also not an isolated case.
An influx of people from another part of the world, who require more resources and specialized treatment undoubtedly poses a disruption to the everyday life of locals. It may also take an initial toll on governments on a larger scale, but as we’ve seen in stable multi-cultural societies around the world, the costs do not have to outweigh the benefits. As we become more interconnected as a species, we too become more inter-dependent. The world we are becoming has no place for xenophobia, racism, prejudice and bigotry.