Yemeni Refugees Arrive on Jeju Island: Reflecting on the History of Yemen, Public Sentiment in Korea, and Human Rights Law

Press Conference, March, and Hunger Fast #withrefugees on Friday Sept. 7, 2018

Press Conference, March, and Hunger Fast #withrefugees on Friday Sept. 7, 2018

By Andrea Schnitzer(Copy-editing team, ISC)

From January to May of 2018, about 550 Yemenis, mostly single men, arrived on Korea’s largest island through a visa waiver program for tourists. The refugees arrived seemingly out of nowhere, triggering feelings of an “invasion” in a segment of the Korean population, sparking protests and online presidential petitions largely against the asylum seekers.

This article briefly addresses the gap in historical knowledge that contributed to the xenophobia. It also covers why Koreans, for the most part, have a negative reaction to the Jeju asylum seekers. Rather than generalizing all Koreans as xenophobic, this piece addresses Korea’s human rights obligations and highlights those who support asylum seekers. It also incorporates the views of Abdelrahman Zaid, an Egyptian asylum seeker who has been living in Korea for the last two years.

The War in Yemen
Conflict in Yemen is a recent phenomenon and can be characterized as a power struggle rather than a civil war involving a majority of the population. While Yemen has 29 million people, the Houthis and the extremist Shia militants who sparked the conflict, numbered around 100,000 in 2010, less than 0.4% of the population.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, and its poverty has contributed to the unrest. The reasons for its economic issues include corruption, declining oil reserves, and a drug named qat that has replaced many food crops. The government’s unresponsiveness to economic needs created an opening for the Houthis to gain enough support for a coup attempt in 2004. Though the Houthis failed, the 2011 Arab Spring protests blocked President Ali Abdullah Saleh from running for reelection. After more than 30 years in power, first having ruled Northern Yemen and then over a reunified North and South Yemen, Saleh was replaced by the more moderate Vice-president Abdu Rabbu Mansour who was supposed to call for early elections. Three years later, with the promise unfulfilled, dissatisfaction with the government led to the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis. This in turn triggered the Saudis and UAE to begin their bombing campaigns in 2015. The Saudi and UAE intervention is based on their fear that Iran (a regional rival) influences the Houthis. Weapons en route to the Houthis were allegedly from Iran, though the Houthis insist they are purely a domestic movement. For the past three years, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and 7 other countries[1] have been bombing and invading Yemen, killing many civilians. The US and UK-backed Saudi coalition is responsible for 75% of civilian deaths in the conflict.

Trapped in the middle, most Yemenis are simply struggling to survive: 22 out of 29 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance, making them the single largest group of people in the world currently in need. Unfortunately, the US and EU-backed Saudi-led coalition’s attempts at rooting out “pro-Iranian militants,” or Houthis, have also led to the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, killing and injuring thousands and displacing millions.

The Current Humanitarian Crisis
Though difficult to gauge an accurate count, about 50,000 have died from the violence. The figure alone fails to illustrate the full horror: in a recent bombing of a bus 51 people were killed, 40 of them children. Searching through the wreckage and hospitals for his son, Abdelhakim Amir “just found some of what the child was wearing...not his finger, not his bone, not his skull, nothing...I looked through all the remains in the hospital and I didn't see anything." Children are erased, their families left grasping for something to bury. Pictures of the bomb fragments afterward revealed that it was made in the USA and sold to Saudi Arabia.

In addition to the violence, the situation is exacerbated by a blockade keeping aid from the sick and hungry. To weaken the Houthis, the Saudi coalition has blocked shipments of food and fuel at major ports. This has shut down the remaining hospitals (over 50% have already been destroyed), depriving Yemenis of medical treatment and food.

In addition to hospitals, the fighting has devastated water and sanitation systems, creating the largest cholera epidemic ever recorded: As of April 2018, 1 million people have been infected and over 2,200 have died. Bombings also destroy the ability to transport food, water, fuel, and medical supplies inside the country, creating famine and disease. 50,000 children died last year and 400,000 children are at risk of starving to death in the immediate future. The destruction of the economy and lack of jobs mean that parents are no longer able to afford even the little food that is available. Leaving the war-torn, famished country is clearly the best option for those who can manage it.

The Debate on Refugee Acceptance in Korea
From Aljazeera’s interviews with Jeju islanders, people stated several times that they want the government to dialogue with citizens about why accepting refugees is important. Koreans expect their government to listen to public concerns and balance them with legal obligations to the refugees. Polling shows that 50% of Koreans oppose and 40% support including refugees into Korean society. This is not an insurmountable difference for refugee advocates to overcome.

Korea was the first East Asian country to adopt a national refugee law in 2012. The Korean Refugee Act directly refers to The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, thus making this international treaty binding. The law offers the right to seek, but not necessarily be granted asylum. Furthermore, Korea’s Refugee Act includes the principle of non-refoulement — the government can reject asylum applicants, but it cannot send them back to their home countries if they are in real danger. Even if the Yemenis cannot find a place to stay in Korea, given the conditions detailed above, clearly, they cannot be sent back.

Another immediate problem is the lack of properly trained staff to process the asylum applications. This includes properly trained staff to communicate with applicants in their native languages. After an unqualified Arabic to Korean translator had been fabricating testimony that refugees arrived only seeking money, a judge threw out many of these falsely translated testimonies. Shockingly, “none of the ministry's Korean-Arabic translators on Jeju has the proper qualifications.” It’s unclear whether this was incompetence or a reflection of the the Korean government’s intention to ignore its refugee obligations. In any case, the Ministry of Justice has granted permanent refugee status to a tiny fraction (around 4%) of all applicants.

Whether founded or unfounded, the government and civil society need to confront and dispel Koreans’ fears that the refugees will become criminals. This is also important for the safety of refugees who fear the consequence of prejudice and Islamophobia. Part of Korea fulfilling its obligations to refugees includes bolstering a more fair and just police force, not only to reassure Koreans, but to fairly prosecute crimes against migrants. In addition, civil society organizations need to continue bridging the divide between foreign communities and Koreans.

Perspectives from Progressives in Korea
Despite rapid economic development in South Korea, many people still live difficult lives. Daehan Song, a Korean American, notes that “Life in Korea is hard. That’s why Koreans call it Hell Chosun. When people are living hard lives, working irregular jobs, the economy isn’t doing so well, and women fear for their safety as highlighted by the Metoo movement, it’s easy to get into a conservative reactionary mode.” Like conservative reactions in other countries around the globe, growing inequality has led to a backlash against “outsiders” seen as competition in a stiff job market. Furthermore, the stereotype of Middle Eastern men as violent and sexist exacerbates the existing fears around women’s safety from sexual violence in Korea.

Jeongeun Hwang states that “The refugee issue is new to many people and people's first reaction to unfamiliar things is mostly fear. Also, Koreans generally need more human rights education.” Worse, media coverage oversimplifies the issues[2]. Hwang notes how, “There was little fact checking or critique of the system, or explanations about the cause of the Yemen refugees.” She criticizes the government’s passivity: “The government should stop the spread of fake news or misleading information by providing fact-based information. Civil society organizations can also be the source of correct information and carry out campaigns to spread the value of human rights and equality among people.”

Conservative elements linger even in Korea’s social movements. Taeeun Shim recounts how in college, a leader in the peasant movement blamed Southeast Asian women for “watering down (or ruining) the rural community.” At that time, she responded, “It was Korean men who ‘bought’ those women to get married and use their labor. You are just yet another conservative clinging on to the notions of ‘blood.’ Shame on you!” The moment highlighted the tension between nationalist pride and reimagining being “Korean” in a globalized modern world.

Applying for Asylum
“No country can resist opening their minds or border to becoming a part of this free world,” says Abdelrahman Zaid, an Egyptian asylum seeker. However, his problem is having to wait the “5, 10, or 20 years” until Koreans open up to foreigners. He’s lived in Korea for the past two and a half years after fleeing Egypt after a 5 years prison sentence for anti-government demonstrations. Korea was the only country he could find which had not required an entry-visa.

But being allowed in didn’t mean being allowed humane conditions. Not only are refugee applicants in Korea prevented from working for the first 6 months, 95% of them receive no government financial support. Zaid believes the refugee process is intentionally arduous to discourage applicants and trap them into working illegally, which would ruin their chances of being accepted as refugees.

In order to protest the arbitrary rejections of their applications, Zaid along with fellow Egyptian applicants went on hunger strike for nearly a month[3]. Zaid drew hope and energy from Koreans and others protesting and marching with him: dialogue is taking place between foreign and native Korean people on how to improve society.

Ultimately, Zaid just wants “to start life over and live in peace with normal conditions as a human being.” Despite his hardships, he admires Korea for its ability to “develop from bad conditions, survive a dictatorial regime, a civil war, and the invasion of Japan.” Now he’s fighting to make Korea a more equal and inclusive society.

Understanding the backlash and responding to it are key to moving forward with the debate; however, fake news and biased reporting are muddying the waters. The government needs to actively counter biased and fake news. Meanwhile, civil society should further educate average people on human rights and continue to show solidarity with refugees and other vulnerable populations while creating a more expansive definition of what it means to be “Korean” today. Furthermore, the asylum seeking system should be reviewed internationally and domestically. Most countries avoid the problem and responsibility altogether by simply blocking entry to asylum seekers.

While the current refugee situation is a personal crisis for applicants, the broader picture is hopeful as progressive groups continue to raise their voices for refugees and other vulnerable populations in Korea. A broader discussion on Korea’s place and identity in the modern world is shaping the next generation of people on the Korean peninsula.

To learn more or get involved:  
Korean groups are working to help refugees on Jeju, religious groups that have traditionally advocated for migrant rights since the 1980s. Buddhists and Catholic nuns along with other aid groups are working in support of the Yemenis. If you want to get involved, you can contact 난민인권센터 (The Refugee Human Rights Center) for information on how to donate to organizations in Jeju and around Korea (Website: or contact The International Strategy Center for bank account information for 나오미센터 (Naomi Center), a Catholic organization working directly with refugees.

  1. The coalition includes Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, as well as US private mercenaries (Qatar backed out earlier this year). The US, the UK and France have provided logistical and intelligence support, and Brazil has also sold weapons to the Saudis. (according to OHCHR and HRW) and
  2. From June 1st to July 20th, 7 media outlets covered the issue 44 times; 33% were simple pros-cons reports, 20% were about the government response, while 13.6% were about countries’ handling of the issue. Source:
  3. Their hunger strike ended only after Ms. Young-Ae Choi, Chairperson of the National Human RIghts Commission of Korea (NHRCK), personally visited them to discuss ending the hunger strike and putting their faith in the NHRCK to end the suffering of refugees in the country. Source: (Korean)