[Refuge pNan]Korea isn’t the most likely place for a wartime refugee to end up.
But Fouad Mejano, 28, is one of hundreds of Syrian asylum seekers to Korea who fled days filled with violence and fear.
Three years ago, Mejano defected from the Syrian Army. Afraid for his life, he crossed the border into Turkey.
“When I was in the army, we had to follow the orders of our superior officers, whether it was to shoot someone or bomb something,” he said, recalling the horrors as life as a young soldier. “If we didn’t follow orders, we were the ones shot.”
Mejano was forced to join the army at 23 years old, and quickly began looking for a means of escape. “One day, I asked my supervisor for permission to leave my post for 24 hours. Then I fled toward Turkey. At times I traveled to the border by car and once walked for 13 hours straight across the mountain range.”
At his home in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi, Mejano showed to the Korea JoongAng Daily his F-2 identification card and his certificate granting him official refugee status in Korea.
On Dec. 16, 2014, the Seoul Immigration Office issued him a Certificate of Refugee Status Recognition. The following week, he was issued an Alien Registration Card and an F-2 visa.
The Alien Registration number can serve in lieu of a Korean national identification number and enables him to freely seek employment or receive education and conduct daily activities and transactions like banking with ease.
Mejano recalled that the application process was rigorous. He went through two rounds of interviews that lasted for hours at the Seoul Immigration Office, where he was questioned on his anti-government activities and why his life was at stake in Syria.
Unlike most other Syrian refugees, who have been granted humanitarian status and a G-1 temporary residence visa, having refugee status enables him benefits like health insurance.
Mejano is among some 800 Syrian asylum seekers in Korea, though he is one of just three Syrians to ever have been granted refugee status here.
Over the past 21 years, the Korean Ministry of Justice has granted nearly 530 people refugee status.
While Korea is not known for accepting many refugees, it is the first East Asian country to adopt its own comprehensive legislation detailing the process by which refugee status can be granted, the Refugee Act, enacted in 2012.
This year, it also has taken initial measures to launch its first resettlement project in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to bring approximately 100 refugees from Myanmar to Korea over the next three years.
Opening up to asylum seekers
The haunting photograph of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian refugee boy whose body washed up face down on the shores of the Turkish coast in September sent a ripple of outrage and concern over the Syrian refugee crisis across Korea, as it did globally.
During a high-level meeting at the United Nations in New York at the end of September, Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se called the photograph “a wake-up call to the conscience of humanity.”
“Migration and refugee issues,” he continued, “are not just a European problem but a global challenge which requires an urgent solution through a united response from the global community.”
Korea, he added, is providing humanitarian assistance to refugees as a “part of humanitarian diplomacy, which is an important policy priority for the Park Geun-hye government.”
Since 2011, the Korean government has offered $27 million to assist Syrian and Iraqi refugees. And though they are cautious steps, the Korean government has been taking more action to address the refugee resettlement issue.
According to the Ministry of Justice, between 1994 and August this year, 522 people have been granted refugee status. This is just 6.7 percent of the 7,735 people who underwent an official review, while another 879 asylum-seekers who underwent review by the Korean government, or 11.4 percent, were granted humanitarian status.
The Justice Ministry said that in 2014 alone, it granted refugee status to 94 asylum-seekers, or 5.3 percent of the 1,778 people it reviewed. Some 30.3 percent, or 539, of the people who sought asylum were granted humanitarian status.
This puts Korea 12th among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in terms of the rate it grants protections to refugees, according to the ministry.
Korea joined the UN Refugee Convention in 1993 and became the first Asian country to pass refugee protection legislation in 2012. The Refugee Act was subsequently enacted in July 2013.
It is estimated that some 12,200 people have sought asylum in Korea since 1994.
The number of people who applied for refugee status nearly tripled, from 1,011 in 2011, to 2,896 last year, according to the Justice Ministry.
But though the number of refugee applications has increased drastically ever since the enactment of the Refugee Act, concerns remain that the approval rate for refugees is still too low. The Korean government recognizes that it needs to step up measures to resolve the global refugee and the migration issue.
“At least legally, we are a country that is comparatively welcoming toward refugees, and we are somewhat well practiced to accept them, as we have seen an increase in multicultural families,” said Chung Yong-sang, a law professor at Dongguk University and human rights activist.
In 2013, Chung was inspired by his student, Abdulwahab Almohammad Agha, to pay more attention to the Syrian crisis. He founded the civic organization Help Syria that year, and Agha acts as a planning manager, frequently traveling back and forth between Syria’s borders and Korea.
“Because the legal structure is in place, it is time for the sense of human rights in Korea to catch up,” Chung added.
Koreans and the government are increasingly recognizing the need to accept more refugees into the government, especially on humanitarian grounds.
Since September, dozens of Syrian asylum-seekers have gathered in Seoul, backed by local civic organizations, and held peaceful rallies to publicly share their plight being separated from their families as victims of one of the worst refugee crisis in recent decades, and their desire to be officially recognized as refugees in Korea.
Many people here learned for the first time that there were hundreds of Syrians desiring to seek asylum in Korea via these rallies. Some called upon the Korean government to take more concrete steps to help the Syrian cause; some voiced concern about what the influx of refugees would do to jobs and social security in Korea.
The Justice Ministry said that between 2014 and August this year, it had reviewed 705 applications from Syrian asylum-seekers. Of those, three were granted refugee status and 621 were granted humanitarian status. The other 73 voluntarily withdrew their applications, the ministry claimed.
Having humanitarian status means they are allowed to work, but are not entitled to any benefits, such as health insurance or education.
The three Syrians who were granted refugee status, including Mejano, underwent a vigorous interview and fact-checking process.
“The three Syrians who were granted refugee status underwent interviews and a fact-checking process, and their situation was decreed pursuant to the Refugee Act,” according to the Justice Ministry.
Under Korean law, a “refugee” refers to an individual who is “unable or unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of his/her country of nationality owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
There were 799 Syrians in Korea as of October, according to the ministry.
The number of refugee applicants from Syria has jumped since civil war broke out in the country in 2011 and has increased further as it intensified two years on.
When asked why most Syrians are granted temporary humanitarian status rather than receiving permanent legal recognition as a refugee, Korean officials have said that they view Syrians as in need of only temporary asylum because of the civil war, and that most Syrians who fled are expected to be able to return.
According to the Justice Ministry, there are refugee-status applications from people of some 60 nationalities. The highest number of asylum-seekers are from Pakistan, as well as Egypt and Syria.
New refugee resettlement project
Some Koreans have expressed concern that an influx of refugees or immigrants in general would take away jobs, particularly at a time when youth employment rates are low.
But while tens of thousands of refugees flock to European countries like Germany, which can see up to 10,000 refugees per day, the number of asylum seekers coming to Korea still remains low in comparison.
Nonetheless, the Korean government announced earlier this year that it will take part in a new three-year pilot program to help resettle refugees in the country.
On Sept. 21, the Ministry of Justice announced that it will bring to Korea an initial group of some 30 refugees from Myanmar currently in a Thai border camp in Mae Sot by the end of the year and support their resettlement in the country.
In collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resettlement program, Korea will bring in up to 90 refugees from Mae Sot to resettle here over the next three years through 2017.
The Burmese refugees approved will be provided with legal and physical protection by the Korean government, granted F-2 residency status, as well as job education and language training.
This will make Korea the second Asian country after Japan ? which joined in 2010 ? to participate in the UNHCR resettlement program.
Korea joins 28 countries worldwide involved in the UNHCR project.
The agency estimates that there are 3.5 million refugees in the Asia-Pacific region alone.
UNHCR Korea’s budget for the refugee program in 2015 is $2.16 million.
According to the UNHCR, in 2014 there were 103,890 refugees under consideration by resettlement countries; its main beneficiaries included those from Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Myanmar.
“We have been screening the refugees, conducting health examinations and interviews,” said a Justice Ministry official. “We are set to receive them before the end of the year, though the exact date has not yet been set.”
Once in Korea, they will be trained and helped to settle at a center for refugees.
There is also a prominent Burmese community here that could help during their adjustment period.
The official added, “We have accepted refugees since 1994, but other countries participating in this resettlement program have been accepting refugees for some 50 years. While refugee issues have always been ongoing, this issue has accelerated recently, and we need to act as a responsible member of [international] society.”
“Plus, we have a refugee act, and this is a human rights issue as well,” added the official. “The resettlement program is needed to protect the rights of the refugees.”
Depending on the success of this project, it could potentially open the door to resettling more refugees.
However, this will be determined by policymakers in accordance with the Refugee Act, the official pointed out.
In an editorial published in the Washington Post on Oct. 1, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim wrote that as a nation with an aging population, Korea needs an influx of younger workers “to continue on its remarkable path of economic growth.”
“The great challenge for many advanced economies is to manage such changes and welcome migrants and refugees with a plan to help them settle and perhaps eventually become citizens,” he pointed out, adding that it is a “smart strategy.”
Settling in Korea
Even after being granted legal refugee status, settling down to a life in a new country with an unfamiliar culture isn’t easy.
Refugees face difficulty finding jobs, overcoming language and cultural barriers and being accepted by society.
For the past two years, Mejano worked in car parts manufacturing, but now he is in-between jobs. Though he has an F-2 visa, which can enable more opportunities, it does not guarantee employment.
“It’s difficult to find a job because of the language barrier and the lack of opportunities and a network,” he said.
Mejano receives private tutoring in Korean but his language skills are nowhere near fluent enough to communicate with ease. He also speaks basic English.
“I have maybe two or three people I consider my true friends,” he added, describing his loneliness in a foreign country.
Furthermore, though Mejano is an F-2 visa holder, he cannot bring his family to Korea. Only immediate family ? a wife or children ? would be able to join him.
His family ? his father, mother, younger brother and younger sister ? have fled Syria to Turkey.
“I am always afraid that [the Syrian army] will find a way to lock away my father and brother,” he admits.
He added that he misses them, and wishes he could bring them to Korea to join him here, which he described as “a safe haven.”
But Mejano recognizes that his other Syrian compatriots on humanitarian status have no chance of receiving refugee status and are currently straddled as half-members of society, without rights to health insurance or citizenship, and unable to return home to Syria.
Non-governmental human rights organizations in Korea like Refuge pNan or Help Syria have been raising the plight of the Syrians who have been stripped from their homelands and often separated from their families.
“Whether you have humanitarian status or legal refugee status, it’s all similar,” Mejano added. “It’s difficult to find jobs, we don’t know the language and we are separated from our families.”
“Of course, ideally, my country would become stable, and I would be able to return to Syria,” he said.
However, he added, “I am very grateful to the Korean government for having somewhere safe to stay.”
In September, Mejano joined Refuge pNan after the organization reached out to him and the group has since supported his job search.
“There are a limited number of job opportunities for refugees,” said Lee Jae-rin, a Refuge pNan staff member in charge of supporting Syrian refugees. “Many of them work in car manufacturing or washing. But it’s not like they can run their own business and are often working helping out friends or acquaintances and without a contract. ”
She explained that Mejano was considered part of the elite back in his home country, which makes it all the more difficult for him to find a suitable job.
“We need to be aware that the refugees are not coming to our society to become a burden,” Lee said. “They also have their own talents and assets as well. And for these people, we need to offer culture and language support.”
She added that support includes helping new refugees adjust to life in Korea, culturally and through language classes, to help them become leaders. “New refugees are best helped by those from their home country who have already settled here. So we can help train these people become new leaders.”
Granting refugee status to Syrian asylum seekers in Korea is a delicate process, and takes into consideration instability in the person’s home country as well as Korea’s diplomatic concerns.
However, others point out that Korea has an obligation to help, both as a country that has faced occupation and civil war in the past and as a responsible member of the international community.
“Korea’s relationship with the current ruling power in Syria is different from the European Union and the United States and other countries,” Chung, the law professor, pointed out. “The Korean government has to be cautious and needs to take many things into consideration ? our construction projects and protecting our people and businesses in the Middle East.”
He described the challenges trying to sponsor a Syrian family member to come to Korea, saying the Korean consulate “required all sorts of guarantees and a pledge not to apply for refugee status when in Korea. I’m not saying this is the government’s fault, but that makes it the responsibility of NGOs to step in.”
Chung also spoke of Korea’s past experience.
“When we speak of refugees, it is an issue that makes our hearts ache as well. We have endured similar hardships in the past, too,” he said, pointing to the familiarity with North Korean defectors. “But the Korean government has limitations on how much they can help because it needs to take into consideration diplomatic reasons as well.”
“The Arab community in Korea,” he continued, “has taken interest in the issue, and they are working with human rights organizations here. For them, it doesn’t matter if they are from Jordan or Yemen or another country. They see the Syrians here as brothers and want to help.”
He said the Korean people should ask whether the country is doing all it can to provide “fundamental education rights, access to healthcare or basic rights to survive” for refugees.
“Becoming more active in the Syrian refugee issue is a great investment in the long term since we are becoming a multicultural country,” Chung continued. “In rural areas, one out of every five households is a multicultural household, and if you go to rural elementary schools, the percentage of students from multicultural families is considerable. While it might be too far of a stretch to directly link accepting refugees with our growing immigrant population, I think that this is a chance to develop a more advanced and tolerant attitude.”
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]