USA TODAY US Edition
Katrin Park JAPAN, KOREA DENY REFUGEES
Ayslum seekers face strict controls, xenophobia and detention centers
Japan and South Korea are like estranged fraternal siblings. Both have more in common than they care to admit: an aging population, abysmal birthrates and gender inequality. Both are in danger of losing workforces unless they open their doors. Yet both face resistance from populations that have long taken pride in their ethnic homogeneity.
Though both nations signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which obliges them to protect and provide refugees with basic rights and social services, their records of accepting asylum seekers are appalling.
Last year, South Korea granted refugee status to 94 people — a bump from 57 in 2013 — out of 2,900 applicants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East (this doesn’t include North Korean defectors, who are considered South Korean citizens by law).
700 FOR EVERY ONE
Things are even worse in Japan. Out of 5,000 asylum seekers, it recognized 11 as refugees last year. In 2013, the figure was six.
The United States accepted more than 70,000 refugees in 2014, or roughly 700 for every one accepted by South Korea and Japan combined.
Seoul and Tokyo emphasize the need to distinguish refugees from undocumented migrant workers. In practice, they are using stringent immigration policies to keep out both. When an Iranian fleeing religious persecution sought asylum in South Korea, authorities tried to deport him for entering the country on a forged passport. Japan has clamped down on asylum seekers since migrants have been applying for refugee status in a desperate attempt to get work permits. It’s a triumph of immigration control over refugee protection.
The two nations worry that an influx of foreigners from poorer, war-torn countries will add to social tension and wreck domestic stability. “Racism is a very difficult issue,” Jong Chul Kim, a Seoul-based human rights lawyer and director of Advocates for Public Interest Law, wrote in an email. “It overrides any argument for letting in foreigners such as humanitarianism, legal obligation or cultural diversity.”
The U.N. human rights office has singled out both countries for racism and xenophobia.
According to a 2013 World Values Survey, more than one in three South Koreans said they didn’t want a neighbor of another race. In 2010 alone, more than 190,000 migrant workers brought to Japan as trainees from across Asia, including the Philippines and rural China, were exploited as cheap labor in factories and farms. AFTER THE VIETNAM WAR Although humanitarianism and refugee protection have become international norms since World War II, in this part of the world they remain largely Western concepts. Japan didn’t accede to the U.N. refugee convention until 1981 under international pressure following the Vietnam War. South Korea acceded in 1992.
As a result, thousands of asylum seekers exist on the margins or waste away in lockdown. Stuck in limbo, with no housing, jobs or health care, refugees survive on assistance from civic groups or work illegally, propounding the misunderstanding that they are migrant workers in disguise.
Germany, which has emerged as a beacon for refugees, is changing its laws to fill worker shortages by accepting Syrian refugees.
Japan and South Korea should follow suit. A panel chaired by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry head Mimura Akio estimated that by 2060, Japan’s workforce will drop by 42%. And according to the Korea Economic Research Institute, South Korea will need as many as 15 million immigrants in order to maintain growth by then. Granting asylum to refugees will give the two countries much needed labor.
It’s a tough sell, but there is a sliver of hope. South Korea passed a law in 2013 banning the deportation of asylum seekers until a final decision is made and letting them work selectively. The law also created a specialized refugee division within the immigration services. The Japanese government agreed with civil society organizations to enhance its asylum review process. Both have given special permissions to Syrian refugees to stay on humanitarian grounds.
The two neighbors also are active contributors to U.N. agencies carrying out humanitarian work (Japan was the second largest contributor to the U.N. refugee agency in 2013). But you can’t demonstrate solidarity with the international community by simply bankrolling others.
It’s time Japan and South Korea put their rivalry to good use to see which can open its doors wider to the world.