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Angolan asylum seekers stranded at Incheon Airport testify in court

An Angolan family who had been stranded for more than three months in Incheon Airport’s transit zone after being denied entry to the country, testified in court Thursday to fight the immigration office’s decision not to accept their refugee applications.

Nkuka Lulendo, his wife and four children aged under 10, who arrived to South Korea on a tourist visa on Dec. 28, explained that how he had been asked to sign a document accepting the rejection without proper explanation at the third hearing in the Incheon District Court.

Upon arrival, the family legally requested a chance to apply for refugee status here, but the immigration office denied their entry on Jan. 9 on the basis the Angolans had "no clear reason" to seek asylum. 

Activists demand swift action by the government to protect the Angolan family during a press conference at the Incheon Airport. Yonhap
Activists demand swift action by the government to protect the Angolan family during a press conference at the Incheon Airport. Yonhap

The family filed a lawsuit against the decision in February to invalidate it. The first hearing took place on March 7 and whether they will be accepted into Korea is set to be decided at the final hearing scheduled for April 25.

At the court, the family’s legal representative argued that the government, without giving a clear reason, deprived the Angolan family of its reasonable right to enter Korea. An official from the immigration office stressed the need to pre-screen whether asylum applicants are authentic before they are accepted into the country.

“The plaintiffs’ lives are depending on the result of this case. They came to this country to avoid rape, detention and torture,” Lee Sang-hyun, the family’s legal representative from Duroo Association for Public Interest Law, said at the hearing.

The Angolan family have barely got three meals a day due to a lack of money, and washed in the airport’s restrooms and slept within its confines as well, with their health in poor condition, according to the activists.

An official from the Incheon Immigration Office said the government was trying to filter out “fake” refugees to protect “genuine” ones.

“The Lulendo family’s case is that they were denied their entry in the process of entering the country on a tourist visa and then they applied for a refugee status as an alternative,” an official from the Incheon Immigration Office said at the hearing.

“On average, 112 people are denied entry at the Incheon Airport (a day). In accordance with plaintiff’s claims, they all should be allowed into the country and give an opportunity to apply for a refugee status,” he said, raising concerns about economic migrants “abusing” the refugee system.

Lulendo, who was born in Angola and moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo at an early age for better opportunities, fears persecution in Angola from the government for having left the country for Congo, according to lawyer Lee.

Under the Refugee Act that came into effect in 2013, all asylum seekers are allowed to apply for refugee status at the port of entry. The immigration office has up to seven days to decide whether to allow them into the country for the process.

Asylum seekers who are denied entry must return to their home countries or fight the government’s decision while living at the airport -- be it in the deportation room or transit zone.

According to the Justice Ministry, 756, or more than half of the 1,428 asylum seekers who applied for refugee status at the port of entry in Korea, had their application rejected between July 2013 and December 2018.

The Justice Ministry has said it will take due action regarding the Lulendo family once the court makes its ruling.

By Ock Hyun-ju (