Yemeni asylum seekers granted humanitarian stay permits

Sergio Conner
October 19, 2018

South Korea's Ministry of Justice has granted humanitarian stay permits for 339 Yemeni refugees seeking asylum on the country's southern Jeju Island.

Many opponents cited the Yemenis' Muslim religion and almost 700,000 people - a record - signed a petition on the presidential website urging the tightening of what are already some of the world's toughest refugee laws.

The asylum seekers sparked an uproar in South Korea, mirroring immigration debates in the US and Europe.

Those affected by Wednesday's decision are part of a larger group of 481 Yemenis, most of whom arrived in Jeju on flights from Malaysia earlier this year.

Refugee applications from 34 Yemenis were rejected as they either faced criminal charges or sought asylum for an economic goal though they can stably live in other countries.

On June 1, the government also amended the Jeju visa exemption rules to exclude Yemenis.

Since 1994 South Korea has approved just 4.1 per cent of applications, official figures show.

The government chose to grant the stay permits because the asylum seekers could be at risk if deported, given the "serious civil war situation in Yemen" and the possibility of their arrest in other countries, even though they fail to meet the requirements for official refugee status, the ministry said. The only exception to the rule applies to North Korean defectors, who are automatically granted citizenship in the South.

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Last month an initial 23, mostly families with children or pregnant women, were given the stay permits, which need to be renewed every 12 months and can be refused if the security situation in Yemen is deemed to have improved.

Not all hope is lost for the Yemenis on Jeju.

On Wednesday, Seoul's Justice Ministry granted 339 of them one-year humanitarian permits to stay, acknowledging that their "right to life and personal liberty" would be put at risk if they were deported. Some Yemenis managed to leave Jeju for the mainland before the government crackdown and have not applied for asylum yet.

Nearly 70 years ago during a violent government crackdown on what they saw as a risky communist insurgency on Jeju, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 islanders fled to Japan, Baek said.

"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.

The adverse effects of refugee acceptance had been demonstrated all over Europe, party chairman Cho Kyoung-tae said in a local media report.

Applications from 34 people were simply rejected because they either face criminal charges or are believed to have sought asylum in South Korea for economic purposes when they can stably stay in other countries, it said.

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