A 30-day, visa-free programme to boost tourism and low-cost direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Jeju has led to an influx of Yemeni refugees to the resort island popular with South Korean honeymooners.
Of 561 Yemenis who arrived on Jeju Island this year, 519 had applied for refugee status as of last month. Forty-two applied for refugee status last year and seven in 2016. There were none in 2015, reported Korea JoongAng Daily.
The wave of refugees has sparked heated debate over South Korea’s refugee policy. South Korea signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention in 1991.
The self-governing and tourism-centric island has held public sessions to teach the refugees basic Korean and introduce them to jobs in the local fishing industry.
But the reactions of the public to the refugees have been mixed.
Over 250,000 people have signed a petition to the presidential Blue House demanding a clampdown on the asylum seekers.
The Blue House is required to provide a formal response to any petitions that receive 200,000 signatures or more in a month, but the presidential office has yet to respond.
Many of the arguments against the Yemenis claim they are “fake refugees” who have “come to take away low-wage jobs”, reported The Hankyoreh.
However, other members of the public 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,” wrote one petitioner in a June 16 message.
“The refugees are just like us,” the petitioner added.
The visa-free rule is applicable to all but 11 countries, including Syria, Iran and Nigeria. Yemen was added to the list on June 1.
Across South Korea, the number of refugee applications touched 5,436 in the first four months of this year, compared with 9,942 applicants last year. Eleven Yemenis were among the 121 people granted refugee status in 2017.