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Immigration detention centers getting crowded amid COVID-19 crisis

June 17, 2020 - 18:57 By Ock Hyun-ju

Immigration detention centers in South Korea, where foreign nationals are held till deportation, have nearly reached their full capacity, with international flights rarely available amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As of May 18, the number of foreigners being held at three detention centers across the country surged by 85.1 percent -- from 389 in March to 720 in May, according to data from the Justice Ministry, released at the request of nongovernmental organization Friends of Asia.

The facilities in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, and in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, saw the number of inmates double from 191 to 387 and from 99 to 198, respectively. The number increased from 99 to 135 at the detention center in Yeosu, South Jeolla Province.

The duration of detention is also seeing a sharp rise, data showed.

The number of people detained for one to three months jumped nearly sixfold, from 37 in March to 222 in May. Those who were stuck at the centers for periods between three and six months nearly doubled, from nine to 17.

Many of the foreign detainees were young. The number of those in their 20s surged from 131 to 236 from March to May, while the number of teenage detainees shot up from one to nine.

The number of foreigners deported, on the other hand, plummeted from 434 to 282 during the same period.

The increase in the number of foreign detainees is because fewer deportation orders are being executed as air travel is hit by the COVID-19 situation, according to immigration authorities.

“The deportation process of foreign nationals is being delayed because countries have suspended or curtailed flights amid the spread of the COVID-19,” the Justice Ministry said in an email response to The Korea Herald’s inquiry.

Unregistered migrants caught staying in Korea without valid visas are issued deportation orders and sent to one of three detention centers across the country, where they stay temporarily until their departure.

The immigration office is refraining from conducting crackdowns on unregistered migrants amid concerns that such crackdowns could overwhelm the already crowded detention centers and hinder the government’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.

However, the number of foreign nationals being admitted to the detention centers continues to grow because those caught by the police or getting out of prison are being transferred to the detention centers, according to the ministry.

“Currently, we are focusing on encouraging unregistered migrants to voluntarily report themselves to authorities and to seek COVID-19 testing,” it said.

For vulnerable groups of detainees – including those with medical conditions, elderly and underage people, the ministry is releasing them from detention temporarily, it added.

The cramped, crowded detention centers holding foreign nationals who may have lived in substandard, unstable conditions prior to being detained could easily turn into hotbeds of COVID-19, Kim Dae-kwon, director of Friends of Asia, pointed out.

“Many countries are refusing their own citizens entry and there are not many flights available, so many of the foreign nationals being held at the detention centers are not able to return even when they want to,” he said, calling the facilities “ticking time bombs.”

“Once they enter the detention facilities, their health deteriorates. They are high-risk groups (for COVID-19 infection),” Kim said. “It’s not that they don’t want to return to their countries. In this situation, forcing them to wait indefinitely in such conditions is excessive.”

In fear of a coronavirus outbreak among migrant workers, as seen in Singapore, the government has encouraged migrants to seek testing and exempted medical facilities from their duty to inform the immigration office if their patients are in Korea illegally.

By Ock Hyun-ju (