Islamophobia Fuels Anti-Refugee Sentiments In South Korea

Since civil war first erupted in Yemen in 2015, many of its citizens have fled as a result of the violence.  Displaced Yemeni citizens have found asylum in neighboring countries in the Middle East as well as across Europe and the United States.  Recently, a small handful have relocated to South Korea.  A little over five hundred Yemeni refugees have applied and been approved for asylum in the country.  However, the arriving migrants have not been warmly welcomed by South Korean citizens.  While many of the Yemeni refugees have been placed on the popular tourist destination of Jeju Island off the country’s southern coast, many South Koreans still feel threatened by their presence.

In an article written for Al Jazeera, Faras Ghani elaborates on the anti-refugee sentiment towards the Yemeni refugees.  In his article, he refers to one South Korean restaurant owner named Ko Minja and her thoughts towards the arriving refugees: “The Yemenis are scary.  They will rape our women, take our jobs and take over the country.  I’m scared of going to the areas where they are living…these people are well known for their reckless behavior and it’s causing fear among Jeju’s citizens.”  According to Ghani, Minja’s views, and those of many other South Koreans who share her sentiments, “…are based on what she has heard from other people, read online and seen on TV, and according to analysts, hers is a similar case to many Koreans who-due to ignorance and lack of knowledge of the outside world-have turned up their voices against the Yemenis.  A survey of about five hundred of Jeju’s citizens has revealed that 90 percent feel “insecure about going outside since the Yemenis’ arrival.”

Much of this anti-refugee sentiment towards asylum seekers arriving from Yemen is rooted in a feeling of Islamophobia across South Korea.  Many South Koreans have a limited exposure—if any—to Islam and Muslims.  Although many South Koreans protesting the acceptance of Yemeni migrants have little to no understanding of the foundations and beliefs of Islam, when asked why they are protesting, many say that Muslims are terrorists and rapists and much of this vilification towards Muslims and Arabs is being disseminated across social media platforms.  As a result, apps and websites such as Twitter and Facebook have engendered more racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia among South Korean citizens.

Jeju Island offers visa-free travel to visitors from different countries as a mechanism to boost tourism.  Until recently, citizens from Yemen were included on the list of countries South Korea allowed visa-free travel to.  As more Yemeni refugees began to arrive, however, more South Korean citizens began to feel unsafe and so began a petition to implore their “government to stop its visa-free policy for Yemen” and insisted its government “to refuse asylum and deport the Yemenis.”  The online petition gained the signatures of over 700,000 South Korean citizens and led to the government removing Yemen from the visa-free travel list as well as tightening its Refugee Act.

Despite a rising atmosphere of fear and xenophobia in South Korea, many of its citizens are determined to help the arriving refugees from Yemen.  Mohammed Salem, a Yemeni seeking asylum in South Korea, recounted his story of fleeing his war-torn country and his arrival in Jeju with his wife and son.  Salem told Al Jazeera of how a Korean family gave him and his wife and son shelter in their own home just days before his stay at a hotel was set to run out.  He says the family buys them food and toys for his son and makes sure their basic needs are met.  Salem works at the refugee center on Jeju island helping with translation.