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[Editorial] Dilemma on refugees

Cautious approach toward refugees should not foster antipathy toward foreigners, migrants

Refugee and migration problems are a global issue, affecting people and governments in many parts of the world, from the US and Latin America to Europe to Africa and Asia. Notwithstanding, Korea has been relatively detached from the refugee crisis. But the case of more than 500 Yemeni refugees stuck on Jeju Island shows Korea too is no exception.

There always is a dilemma of how to deal with a refugee crisis. It is difficult for any host country to balance humanitarian consideration of people in need and potential negative impact on the local economy, populace and public safety.

Korea has faced such a dilemma, but on a relatively small scale. Korea is a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention and has enacted a refugee act, but the number of foreign refugees who sought asylum here has been low, with the government rigid in granting refugee status.

Government data shows 40,470 applications for asylum since 1994. Officials have reviewed 20,361 of those, and granted asylum to just 839, or 4.1 percent -- far below the 38 percent average global acceptance rate.

Given these records, the arrival of more than 500 from a single country in one year and their mass applications for asylum may well alert the local and central governments, as well as the general public. Just compare the data to that of the past: There were only seven Yemeni refugee applicants in 2016 and 42 last year.

The situation mirrors the extended civil war in Yemen and Jeju Island’s lax visa rule that does not require entry visas for foreign travelers -- except from a dozen countries -- staying up to 30 days. Most of the Yemeni nationals came via Malaysia, which offers a 90-day visa-free stay, to take advantage of the visa-waiver program aimed at boosting tourism.

Officials say of the 561 Yemeni nationals who arrived on Jeju this year, 549 have applied for refugee status. Some had already left the southern island before the local government imposed an exit ban April 30.

The exit ban reflected growing public anxiety and uneasiness about the massive influx of refugees. More than 480,000 people have signed a petition with the website of the presidential office to demand the government repeal the refugee act and visa-waiver program and not grant refugee status to asylum seekers. A recent public opinion survey found that 49.1 percent of respondents opposed granting refugee status to the Yemenis, compared to 39 percent who supported it.

Critics claim the Yemenis came to Korea for financial reasons, not to avoid political or religious persecution, and that some criminals or even terrorists could disguise themselves as asylum seekers.

Now that the case of Yemeni refugees has become a national issue, what the government should do is obvious. First, given the poor infrastructure for handling a large number of refugees, including human resources, accommodation facilities and job openings, the government should limit any mass inflow of refugees in a short period of time.

In that regard, the government made the right decision when it added Yemen to the list of countries whose nationals cannot enter the island without a visa on June 1.

This, however, should not mean that Korea does not care about the plight of people in need. Most of all, the best possible care should be given to those already inside the country, including on Jeju Island. The Jeju Special Self-governing Province needs to expand its assistance, including temporary job placements for the Yemenis.

No less important is to expedite the review process for the Yemenis’ refugee status applications, which started only Monday. Due to manpower shortages, the review is said to take up to eight months.

This shows that merely increasing the screening staff to three -- from two -- and placing two interpreters to review the cases of more than 500 people is hardly sufficient. Speedy and efficient reviews are essential for ending the crisis that has been causing public anxiety in the local community. Jeju Island, now a popular destination for Chinese tourists, has already encountered crimes committed by immigrants illegally staying there, including Chinese and Korean-Chinese people, who make up the largest foreign population on the island.

In some sense, the anxiety is understandable, but such wariness should not fan phobia of foreigners or those who have already become members of families and communities in this country, including migrant workers and spouses.

It is against this backdrop that we hope that related activities, including the street demonstration some activists plan to hold in Seoul against the Yemeni refugees Saturday, do not incite hatred or prejudices against people based on their ethnicity, religion or political background.