South Koreans welcome, extend goodwill to Afghan evacuees

Emily Dhong (right) collected boxes of winter clothing in a donation drive to help Afghan evacuees. PHOTO: COURTESY OF EMILY DHONG

SEOUL - When she heard on the news that some 400 Afghans would be evacuated from their war-ravaged country to South Korea, student Emily Dhong was struck by an urge to do something for them.

So the 15-year-old started a winter clothing donation drive in school and managed to collect 10 boxes of clothes within a day.

"I know you came from a warmer region, so I thought some winter clothes would be nice as a welcome gift," she wrote in a letter which she and her mother delivered to Jincheon county, 90km south of their home Seoul, where the evacuees are housed temporarily.

Ms Dhong told The Straits Times: "Ten boxes may be a small number for close to 400 evacuees, but the love from over 280 students is probably not."

Hers is one of many goodwill gestures that have been made to the Afghans seeking refuge from the Taliban militant group that has taken over Afghanistan in the wake of the withdrawal of American troops.

A total of 390 Afghans, half of them professionals who had worked at the South Korean embassy in Kabul and other South Korean organisations, and the other half their family members, arrived in South Korea on Aug 26-27 in an air rescue mission codenamed Operation Miracle.

Now staying in state-run dormitories in Jincheon, they had served two weeks of Covid-19 quarantine before being allowed to leave their rooms and mingle with others.

They are slated to learn the Korean language and culture over the next six weeks to help them settle down in their new home.

The government has designated them as "persons of special merit" and not refugees, in an apparent attempt to counter any possible discrimination against them.

South Korea may have adopted the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention since 1992, but its largely homogenous population continues to shun outsiders.

When some 500 Yemenis suddenly fled to southern Jeju island in 2018 to escape war in their country, this triggered a huge public outcry and thousands of people took to the streets to protest against what they called "fake refugees". They also feared that these asylum seekers would commit crimes and disrupt their peaceful lives.

Eventually, only two of the Yemenis were granted refugee status. Some 400 were allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds, while the rest were ordered to leave.

This time around, however, the government was careful to explain first why South Korea had to embark on the rescue mission. As President Moon Jae-in put it, it was "only natural for us to fulfil our moral responsibility by helping the Afghans who helped our operations".

While there is still some objection, polls show that a majority of people support the government's move.

A recent study by pollster Realmeter showed that 68.7 per cent of 500 respondents approve of the plan to issue long-term visas to the Afghan evacuees.

Afghan evacuees arrive at Incheon International Airport in South Korea on Aug 26, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

The outpouring of goodwill is another indication that South Koreans are willing to accept these foreigners.

The Ministry of Justice is working with organisations such as the Korean Red Cross to collect and distribute donations from the public, such as daily necessities and gifts for Afghan children.

Jincheon Mall, a non-profit e-commerce site run by the county, was also swamped with orders from people who bought Jincheon's agricultural products to show their appreciation to the county.

The mall received about 1,500 orders over one weekend, more than 20 times higher than usual.

A Jincheon official said there is a "steady stream" of donations coming in for the Afghans.

A cosmetics firm reportedly donated 1.5 million won ($1,700) worth of products, while a farming association sent 30 boxes of halal-certified pears worth 1.8 million won. Two churches also donated 3 million won each.

"We hope that the public's kindness and support will help them adjust comfortably to life in Korea," the official said.

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