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S. Korea Offers Some Asylum Seekers Second-Class Treatment

September 10, 2006|Mi-Sook Jeong | Associated Press Writer

SEOUL — Fleeing oppression at home, Aung Myint Swe had high hopes he'd be warmly welcomed as an asylum seeker in South Korea, which, like his native Myanmar, endured decades of repression under military dictatorship.

Swe, 46, had watched admiringly as South Korea blossomed into a democracy in the 1970s and '80s while he was active in uprisings against the Myanmar military regime, supporting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

But his experience hasn't been what he hoped. He had to wait four years before being granted asylum in 2003, and he is still struggling to get by. He gets no government assistance and cannot find work other than manual labor.

"I can't bring my family over here ... because my own survival is precarious," said Swe, whose wife and two children are still in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Despite his disappointment, Swe is among the lucky ones -- one of just 48 refugees from countries other than North Korea who have been officially recognized here since South Korea became a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention in 1992.

Under South Korea's Constitution, North Koreans are regarded as citizens, and Seoul has welcomed about 8,500 North Korean defectors. But the situation for other refugees is drastically different.

It wasn't until 2001 that South Korea even granted asylum to its first non-Korean refugee, and it has rejected 229 applicants.

Still awaiting a decision are 445 refugees. Ninety-four have withdrawn their requests and 35 were allowed three-month stays on humanitarian grounds but not granted refugee status. Fifty-three others are appealing rejections.

For defectors from the North, the government provides support for career education, housing and about $10,500 in settlement aid per person along with three months of assimilation training.

Other refugees get no help, and they are banned from working until they are granted asylum, forcing them to struggle for their survival.

"There are no other ways for refuge seekers to support themselves except to steal or work illegally," said Hwang Pil-gyu, a lawyer who helps refugees seek asylum.

Many work illegally in factories or manual jobs.

Newspapers and broadcasters have reported many cases of foreigners being abused by Korean employers or colleagues, such as being cheated of wages or forced to work in dangerous conditions.

Kong Jon-haeng, a Justice Ministry official who deals with refugee matters, said the government was "putting a lot of effort" into addressing the refugee situation.

But he added that the government was concerned that migrants from impoverished nations were seeking asylum in prosperous South Korea to get jobs.

About 180,000 foreigners are believed to reside illegally in South Korea, according to the Justice Ministry.

Some refugees argue that worries about economic migrants are simply an excuse not to acknowledge legitimate asylum seekers.

Activists also accuse the government of failing to address the needs of refuge seekers who don't know about the social system and don't speak Korean, saying asylum decisions are often made with insufficient communication.

Hwang, the lawyer, noted that the government doesn't provide interpreters to asylum seekers. "How can a person who barely speaks simple language get across such a complicated situation as being a refugee?" he said.

South Korea's asylum system was called "rudimentary" by the United Nations refugee agency.

"Some aspects of the current system do not yet meet the international standards ... necessary to effective refugee protection," such as providing interpreters, Janice Lynn Marshall of the U.N. refugee office in South Korea said in an e-mail.

A political refugee from Bangladesh, who calls himself Ronel Chakma -- not his full name, because he fears reprisals against relatives at home -- came to South Korea as a tourist in 1994, staying illegally on and off until he was granted asylum in 2004, two years after applying.

He said he chose South Korea for its democracy and relatively high level of security.

He works at a furniture factory in a Seoul suburb with his wife, has opened an office to support fellow countrymen seeking asylum and is still pushing for increased sovereignty for his own people, the indigenous Jumma minority in southeastern Bangladesh.

Chakma said a brother at home recently told him that Bangladeshi government agents were still tracking his whereabouts, so he was happy to be in South Korea, especially for his 7-year-old son, who just started school.

But he'd like to see better conditions for those who flee oppressive regimes.

"I wish there was some tangible support for refugees like myself," Chakma said.

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