Yemeni refugees in South Korea speak to Al Arabiya English on asylum struggles

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Human rights groups in the South Korean island of Jeju are facing a major crisis as they struggle to provide aid to the more than 500 Yemeni asylum seekers who have traveled to the island.

While some islanders protested the large influx of refugees into the island, the Korean authorities have decided to speed up the procedures for asylum seekers from eight months to about three months by increasing the numbers of staff members who will examine immigration and asylum applications.

Yemeni refugees waiting in Jeju Island immigration office. (Supplied)
Yemeni refugees waiting in Jeju Island immigration office. (Supplied)

Asylum seekers, most of whom are Yemeni nationals, said the Korean authorities treat them well and are trying to ease the interview and application procedures as much as possible.

Al Arabiya English met with Bassam Mohamed, a Yemeni refugee who moved to the island after being displaced for two years due to the war, who said that the number of refugees currently seeking asylum on the island are more than 500, including 12 families.

The Korean authorities first let the influx of Yemenis into the island under the pretense that they were tourists.

However, as the number of asylum applications increased tremendously, the authorities decided to impose entry visas on Yemenis coming to Jeju Island.

Additionally, the country has imposed a ban on the transferring of refugees from Jeju to the capital Seoul, where most asylum seekers want to move.

Mohamed said that refugees are currently staying at private hotels and are receiving in-kind and food services from humanitarian organizations.

However, he added, some of the islanders still fear the presence of refugees and have protested their stay.

He said that their fear comes from circulating news coverage about terrorism in the Middle East, which has led some people to believe that the refugees are not entitled to asylum.

Koreans demonstrate against the influx of Yemeni refugees into Jeju Island. (Supplied)
Koreans demonstrate against the influx of Yemeni refugees into Jeju Island. (Supplied)

But, Mohamed says, a number of demonstrations welcoming the refugees were held as well.

Mohamed told Al Arabiya that the immigration department allowed refugees to work in areas such as fishing and agriculture. However, many, who hold degrees in STEM and are not experienced in these fields, are hoping to move to the capital where they can work in factories instead.

In the case of families seeking to transfer to the capital, the immigration department in Seoul are reviewing their applications. In the meantime, asylum seekers on the island are not allowed to leave Jeju and are provided aid and health care services.

Many refugees are hoping the transfer ban will be lifted as they consider their stay on the island “useless” since living expenses are high and there are job opportunities are limited.

For its part, the government decided to continue providing asylum to refugees while limiting the number of people who can transfer out of the island until their identities are verified and any suspicions of crime and terrorism are cleared.

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