Refugee Act : Appreciated, but Unsatisfied
Lawyer of Advocates for Public Interest Law
1. How were refugees treated in Korea before the Refugee Act established?
The first Refugee Act in East Asia passed the Korea National Assembly in 29th of December, 2011. It was the Immigration Control Act that had covered refugee issues until the new law took effect. In other words, the legislation for immigration control had been used to control those who were oppressed and exiled from their home country. The national government had to give priority to national security over human security when it came down to refugees. Even though they are illegal, however, the conditions refugees are faced with must not be ignored. We took the first step for human security by enacting our own Refugee Act but there are serious concerns even after the agreement.
2. What have changed by the enactment of the Refugee Act?
The Refugee Act enhanced the regulation of refugee admission procedure and guaranteed rights of the refugees and refugee applicants. Here are some examples. It is easy to find an instruction on refugee application at Heathrow airport in London, but you could not find such guidance at any Korean airports. Now, people can get related information and refugee application forms even at the Incheon International Airport. Second, it was common for women who were sexually assaulted in their homeland to have interviews with male officers. Now, if the asylum seekers can be rightfully interviewed by the same-gender officer if she or he prefers. In regard to guaranteed rights, unless refugees lose the court case regarding their position as refugees, they can stay in Korea legally as refugee applicants. And the act also implemented “principle of the unity of the family” by allowing family members of refugee applicants to enter Korea at their convenience. They are also protected by the Social Security Act and the National Basic Living Security Act, just as Korean people are. Their educational background and qualifications attained in foreign countries are available in Korea and both social adaptation training and vocational training will be provided.
The Act is so far so good, but it still has a long way to go. Then, what part should be revised in this act?
3. What are the problems of the Refugee Act?
First of all, the Refugee Act states that some parts of refugee approval procedures can be skipped in special circumstances. The procedure is comprised of only two parts: an interview and examination of the application. Frankly, neither can or should be excluded from the approval procedure under any condition. Even though the refugees are supported by the government in terms of living expenses or work permit, they are all managed by the discretion of authorities. It is true that the procedure of applying for refugee approval has become more convenient for refugee applicants because they can make a request at the immigration checkpoints in airports. However, whether to pass the admission procedure or not is at the discretion of the officials. Admissibility always gives rise to troubles.
4. The original bill of the Refugee Act
We looked into what have changed and what should be changed in the Refugee Act . The last part we are going to check is what is missing from the original bill. The first difference between the original bill and the currently implemented Act is translation. There is a phrase ‘well founded fear’ in English definition of refugees. The expression was wrongly translated as ‘fear for sufficient grounds’ but it was corrected to ‘fear for reasonable grounds’ by reflecting the internationally acknowledged concept of refugees. The term was revised back to the previous one in the new version.
The second is the treatment to exceptional sojourners. According to the bill, the sojourners staying in Korea for humane reasons have a right to be treated as refugees. Until now, only a work permit was granted to them.
The third is related to ‘burden of proof’. The bill stipulated that refugee applicants are entitled to ‘benefit of the doubt’ when their refugee status is not assured. That clause has been changed to “the Minister of Justice must gather reference materials that is advantageous to the refugee applicants during the admission procedure.”
Lastly, advantages were provided for refugee applicants under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees when they naturalize to Korean citizens, but they must now meet all the requirement of naturalization since the modification of the Act.
As of now, the Refugee Act is indeed a big step forward in refugee protection in Korea. However, it is still too early to celebrate whole-heartedly. We have a long way to perfecting the legal framework to create a safe environment for the refugees.