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[Lee Jae-min] Long overdue: Refugee review system overhaul

Hypothetically, visualize yourself fleeing your home country for fear of life. To make it out of the country, you would diligently throw away and destroy documents and materials relating to your identification or association. If successful, you would arrive in a foreign country, almost empty-handed and paperless. Then comes the dilemmatic part – how do you prove the circumstances that forced you to flee? The last thing you would do is contact agencies back home or consulates general abroad for issuance of missing documentation. Absence or lack of documentation would haunt you when you need it most – an application proceeding for refugee status.

According to immigration experts and lawyers, that is the most challenging, and the most determinative, obstacle for those applying for refugee status in South Korea. They pinpoint Korea’s high “proof” threshold as one of the major reasons for the country’s low rate of refugee application approval.

The overall approval rate in Korea stands just at 4.1 percent (839 out of 20,361 from Jan. 1994 to May 2018). This number contrasts sharply with that of other developed countries, and the global average of 38 percent. Usually at this point Japan is presented as an antithesis with an approval rate of 0.5 percent, but Korea’s neighbor is a peculiar exception, whose situation is too aberrational to be taken as a benchmark.

The Oct. 17 decision of the Ministry of Justice brought these two aspects into spotlight. Firstly, again a very low approval rate – in fact, all of the 458 applications filed by the Yemeni nationals were rejected. And the reasons given are basically the failure to prove individual circumstances and situations back home.

Notably, 339 out of the total 458 applicants were granted temporary protection status. The grounds were humanitarian consideration given the famine and poverty in the war-stricken Middle East country. So, for those 339 applicants, their refugee applications were denied but they were permitted to stay in Korea, subject to further annual reviews.

There are multiple ways to interpret the “zero” refugee approval rate together with the 74 percent rate of granting temporary protection status. One way to interpret it is an increasing awareness of the need to protect the Yemeni nationals arriving in Korea considering the unspeakable situation in the country at the moment. It is in the right direction and should be lauded.

Another way to interpret it would view the result as a stopgap measure to buy time - basically, the reflection of lack of information and time for evaluating officers to reach conclusive decisions. To agonizing officers taking a “middle way” – no refugee status recognition but permission to stay and work – may have been a tempting alternative.

Had the second scenario been a major consideration, it would hardly solve any problem. Instead, it would only exacerbate the logistical burden for future reviews. If anything, the number of applications is now skyrocketing. Ministry of Justice estimates: refugee applications this year are expected to reach 18,000 by year-end, a 132 percent increase from last year, and the upward surge will continue next year and the year after. So, what we will see is a fully flooded docket of the immigration agency. What’s more, remember the temporary status is supposed to be reviewed annually. Which means a constantly increasing workload for the agency. Which in turn would mean a more likelihood of non-committal, deferring decisions. A vicious circle is in the making.

So, the point is how to face, and hopefully fix, this structural problem now. Doing the refugee application review properly requires an effectively operating system backed by adequate resources. Only then could evaluating officers examine the merit of each application carefully and render an appropriate decision as to who to approve and who not. The present system is premised on an assumption of having just a couple hundred applications each year. As a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, having an effective review system is a legal obligation of Korea.

There are many issues the year 2018 is to be remembered with. One of which can be an overhaul and improvement of the nation’s refugee review system. 


Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at jaemin@snu.ac.kr. -- Ed.
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