Recalling his refugee application interview, Mohamad Sabry, who was formerly a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and is now in Korea on a humanitarian stay visa, said it was the beginning of “another part of a miserable life.”
The 38-year-old Egyptian, who came to Korea in 2016 to flee persecution by the military regime that seized power in a coup, said records documenting his refugee application interview had been falsified.
“I was verbally assaulted during my formal interview at the Seoul Immigration Office,” he said during a press conference Tuesday in Seoul, where he gave testimony about his experience in the refugee interview process alongside three other asylum seekers.
“She told me to shut up during the interview. I tried to ask the interviewer to give me a chance to answer her questions, but the interpreter told me, ‘I told you repeatedly not to talk or move,’” he said. “I was rejected (for refugee status) due to falsification.”
Asylum-seekers and refugees speak at a press conference in Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap)
The written record of the interview said he had confessed that his application had been false and that he had come to Korea to look for work, Sabry said. He discovered a year later that what he said had been falsely recorded.
As Thursday marks World Refugee Day, refugee applicants and activists say there is a long road ahead for South Korea to guarantee rights and proper protection for asylum seekers, though Korea was the first in Asia to enact its Refugee Act, in 2012.
Their criticisms center on what they say is a protracted and slipshod refugee application process, the government’s failure to protect the basic human rights of asylum seekers, who are often rejected at ports of entry, and unfair treatment of those on humanitarian stay permits.
With the arrival of more than 500 Yemeni refugees on Jeju Island early last year having triggered anti-refugee sentiment here, the government is seeking to amend the Refugee Act before the end of the year to toughen the screening process.
According to activists, the Justice Ministry’s proposed changes would present higher barriers for asylum seekers by requiring a preapplication process. It appears to be an attempt to speed up the process of weeding out “fake refugees,” or economic migrants.
Korea has one of the lowest refugee acceptance rates among developed countries.
Since 1994, Korea has completed reviews for 48,906 refugee applications and granted refugee status to 936 people. The refugee acceptance rate for the past four years was 3.2 percent on average. Some 1,990 people are in Korea on “humanitarian stay” permits.
According to asylum seekers’ testimonies and activists, interviews with asylum seekers -- mostly from Arabic countries -- have been mistranslated, recorded inaccurately or even omitted from documents by immigrations officials. They see it as a systematic attempt by the Korean government to deny them refugee status.
A 26-year-old Egyptian refugee, who was involved in sparking the 2010 Arab Spring, said his interview record was also falsified.
“Later, after my rejection, my lawyer helped me find out what was written in my interview script. We were shocked because the script contained false information and answers I never gave, even the information provided in my passport,” said the Egyptian, who did not want his name revealed.
According to the interview record, he answered that he had no reason not to go back to Egypt and he had never faced assault, threats or persecution either in Egypt or Korea. This, he insists, is not what he had told the officer.
In 2017, the Seoul Administrative Court confirmed there had been “grave procedural problems” in the government’s decision not to recognize 55 asylum seekers as refugees because the interviews were conducted in a slipshod manner.
The Justice Ministry’s internal inspection in September 2018 found 57 cases of misreported interviews and reviewed the cases of 55 asylum seekers who had been denied refugee status.
Activists call on the government to guarantee fairness in the process with the placement of more officials with the necessary expertise to review refugee applications.
Korea saw a sixfold surge in the number of refugee applications in recent years -- from 2,896 in 2014 to 16,173 last year -- according to government data. There are 19,931 asylum seekers whose applications were awaiting review as of December 2018.
It takes an average of 11 months to receive a decision.
“The problem is that government officials who have no expertise in this sector are reviewing the refugee applications without being properly trained, as seen in the cases of fabricated refugee interviews,” said Kim Yeon-joo, a human rights lawyer at the NANCEN refugee rights center in Seoul.
Refugee rights activists filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in July 2018 concerning the alleged misreporting of refugee interviews.
“And a handful of government officials have too much power controlling the whole process without checks in place,” she said.
As refugee applications piled up, the Justice Ministry increased the number of officials in charge from 39 to 91 this year.
Asylum seekers stuck at airport
The plight of asylum seekers is also visible at the airport, where those who have been refused entry to Korea and denied the right to claim asylum remain stranded in the absence of laws protecting their basic rights.
An Angolan family has been stranded for more than six months in Incheon Airport’s transit zone as they fight the immigration office’s decision not to accept their refugee applications.
Nkuka Lulendo, his wife and four children aged under 10, who arrived in Korea on tourist visas on Dec. 28, 2018, filed a lawsuit in February to ask the court to invalidate the immigration office’s decision to deny them entry.
They requested a chance to apply for refugee status at the airport, but the immigration office rejected it, saying the family had no “clear reasons” to seek asylum. The Incheon District Court in April ruled in favor of the government, viewing its decision as “legitimate.”
Under the Refugee Act, 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 accept them into the country to begin the process.
Asylum seekers who are denied entry must return to their home countries or fight the government’s decision while remaining where they are -- be it in the deportation room or transit zone.
The Lulendo family appealed the court’s decision, with deliberations at the higher court expected to begin in July.
In the meantime, the family remains stuck at the airport.
Lee Sang-hyun, the family’s legal representative from the Duroo Association for Public Interest Law, criticized the Justice Ministry for denying refugees’ rights to claim asylum without sufficient reason.
“The immigration office is abusing the system and filtering out too many refugee applications at the airport even before they are sent for a proper review,” he said. “There are institutions and laws that guarantee rights to seek asylum and meet basic needs such as food and medical services even after they are rejected at the port of entry.
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 applications rejected between July 2013 and December 2018.
The Lulendo family is struggling at the airport, but many others could not stand the situation and were forced to board flights going elsewhere, Lee added.
“There should be at least consistent rules on how to deal with those whose rights to seek asylum were rejected at the airport because their (basic human rights) are severely violated,” he said.