SEOUL (REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST, THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - South Korea will tighten laws governing the arrival of refugees, the Justice Ministry said on Friday (June 29), after a rapid rise in the number of Yemeni asylum seekers to the resort island of Jeju sparked anti-refugee sentiment in the almost entirely homogeneous country.
More than 552 people from Yemen arrived on the southern resort island of Jeju in South Korea between January and May, compared to just 42 for the whole of last year, reported South Korean media.
The country has granted refugee status to just over 800 people since 1994, of which around 430 were from Yemen.
The sudden surge in Yemeni arrivals has fuelled concern that many could be seeking economic advantage rather than protection and that they could increase crime and other social problems.
More than 540,000 South Koreans have signed an online petition to the presidential Blue House in the past two weeks, asking the government to abolish or amend no-visa entries and the granting of refugee status to applicants.
The Justice Ministry said it will revise the Refugee Act to prevent abuses.
South Korea will also increase the number of officers reviewing refugee applications so as to "quickly review and thoroughly verify identities so as to meticulously review potential for problems including terrorism and violent crime".
South Korea has already blocked asylum seekers in Jeju from leaving the island and on June 1 dropped Yemen from the list of countries that would not require a visa when entering the country.
South Korea began accepting refugee applications in 1994 after acceding to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1992.
The country also enacted the Refugee Act in 2013, becoming the first Asian country to pass its own refugee legislation which allows protection for refugees that have sufficient grounds for fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, social group or political view.
A total of 40,470 people have applied for asylum in South Korea since 1994. The government has so far granted refugee status to just 839.
Yemen has been locked in civil war for the past three years, with aid agencies warning earlier this year that the country is in danger of tipping into famine if fighting continues to disrupt imports of food aid.
A few Yemenis reached Jeju in recent years to make claims for refugee status in South Korea.
What changed this year was a new direct flight to Jeju on a budget airline from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, which also grants Yemenis a 90-day visa on arrival.
Air Asia began one-year hot deals for selected passengers where they could travel back and forth if they pay only 79,000 won (US$70).
The hope among the Yemenis refugees was that Jeju would be a springboard to reach Seoul and apply for refugee protections. But that proved wrong. South Korean officials quickly blocked Yemenis from leaving the island of Jeju.
"We are not wanted anywhere," said Ahmed Abdu, 23, who left Ibb in central Yemen in April on a more than US$2,000 trip through Jordan and Qatar, then to Kuala Lumpur and on to Jeju.
"America doesn't want us. Europe doesn't want us. Saudi Arabia doesn't want us. When we heard about Jeju, we thought, 'Maybe this is a place that can save us.' "
He paused to think about what he had just said. "We can't leave. That is true," he added. "But we are alive. We are not worrying about war. That is something very good."
Many of the Yemenis stay at cheap tourist hotels and some have become homeless and sleep in parks.
A Realmeter poll of some 500 South Koreans last week showed 49.1 per cent opposing accepting Yemeni refugees, compared to 39 per cent in favour.
A blogger has called a rally for Saturday in Seoul, under a banner reading "Fake Refugees GET OUT," with mothers of young children posting online they intend to join the rally to raise concerns about crime and loss of jobs.
But others have been appealing for support for the refugees amid the calls for their deportation.
"There's no real difference between our devastation after the Korean War and the articles written about the situation in Yemen in 2017," read one message on a petition on the issue.
"The refugees are just like us," the petitioner added.
The presence of Yemeni refugees has divided the island.
While some are protesting against their stay in Jeju, others have welcomed them.
Oh Myung-pil, owner of a tangerine farm in Jeju's southern coastal area of Seogwipo, said farmers have long been wrestling with labor shortages, particularly during the crop production and harvest season.
"Like other rural areas in the nation, farmers are older and they suffer from labor shortages and soaring wages. Due to their age, many of them will retire sooner or later. The situation will become more serious if their retirement comes without a proper plan to back up the workforce," he said.
Oh said tangerine farms are labour-intensive and young Koreans don't want to work there.
"Tangerine farms require various types of seasonal workers. The simplest work is picking tangerines. There should be healthy men who can carry boxes of tangerines that were picked," he said.
Due to the relatively lower wages, Oh said farmers prefer foreign guest workers.
"Depending on the work, the average wage of a guest worker is about 20 per cent less than that of a Korean," he said.
People from diverse ethnic groups are working on Jeju farms.
In recent years, Oh said, guest workers from Nepal and northeastern China have increased.