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[Feature] ‘Seven years on, refugee protection in S. Korea in retreat’

June 18, 2020 - 17:32 By Ock Hyun-ju
Nkuka Lulendo’s wife and children (Nkuka Lulendo)

Nkuka Lulendo and his family stepped on South Korean soil after a long, grueling 10 months of being trapped inside Incheon International Airport’s transit zone in October last year. But it was only the beginning of their journey to win refugee status.

“Our hopes and dreams today are that we want the government to acknowledge us and give us refugee status,” Lulendo said in French during an interview with The Korea Herald. “We want a good education for our children, we as parents want to work and we also want to contribute to this country.”

Lulendo, his wife and four children, all under 10 years old, arrived in Korea from Angola on a tourist visa on Dec. 28 in 2018. The family requested a chance to apply for refugee status, but the immigration office denied their entry on grounds that the Angolans had “no clear reason” to seek asylum.

When their entry as well as right to claim refugee status on Korean soil were refused, they filed a suit in February last year asking the court to invalidate the immigration office’s decision.

During the legal battle, the family had to live at the airport’s transit zone. They barely got three meals a day, washed in the airport’s restrooms and slept within its confines as well, which affected their health.

“In the airport, you should know that everything was really difficult. We slept in difficult circumstances. We had to eat the same dish every day. One after another, we fell sick,” he said. “We were really like living in a prison.”

The Incheon District Court viewed the immigration office’s decision as “legitimate” in April. A high court overturned the ruling, saying it was unfair for the Lulendo family to not even be referred to the refugee application process. The Supreme Court confirmed the ruling.

After 10 months of struggle, the Lulendo family only earned the right to begin the refugee application process, which could take another three years. They have already filed their asylum application with the Justice Ministry. If the ministry does not recognize them as refugees, the family has to take the issue to the court, which could take several more years.

For now, they have made a semi-basement flat their new home. The children have started attending school.

Under the Refugee Act, all asylum seekers are allowed to apply for refugee status at a port of entry. The immigration office has up to seven days to decide whether to allow them into the country for the process.

The immigration authorities stress the need to prescreen asylum, so as to filter out “fake” refugees and protect “genuine” ones. But activists say it is a human rights violation to deprive them of a chance for a formal refugee application within the country.

Seven years since South Korea enacted the Refugee Act in 2013 to guarantee humanitarian protection for refugees, the Korean government’s views and attitudes toward protecting refugees are in regression, activists say.

Asylum seekers stranded and trapped at the airport like the Lulendo family are only an example of the government failing to uphold international standards in protecting refugees and still seeing the refugee issue from the perspective of border controls, they say.

“The administrative procedures of controlling border force asylum seekers to be stranded at the airport. If that inevitably happens for some time, the government must take responsibility for them so that no human rights violations can take place,” Lee Sang-hyun from Duroo Association for Public Interest Law, legal representative for the Lulendo family.

“They should be provided with proper food and medical care,” he said.

Currently, the Airport Operators Committee, a group of airlines, are in charge of taking care of foreign nationals, who were ordered to be deported and stranded at the airport, under the immigration law.

Last year, there were 188 asylum seekers who applied for refugee status at the port of entry. No data is available on how many are currently stranded at the airport.

“For now, those trapped at the airport are being taken care of and having their problems solved with the help of nongovernmental organizations,” he said. “The policy that only runs based on dedication of NGOs is not a policy that is working well.”

Lee also took issue with some cases in which asylum seekers at the airport could not get legal counseling in time due to lack of cooperation by the immigration officials and they ended up being deported.

Lee Il, a human rights lawyer for Advocates for Public Interest Law, called for a comprehensive plan for managing refugees.

“The government’s indifference to refugees has worsened and now there are even more cases of asylum seekers having to be detained or wait for a longer time,” he said.

“The problem is that the government just has no plans for refugees other than keeping the number of refugees low,” he said. "The government should draw a comprehensive plan for managing refugees, ranging from how many we will accept and how we can utilize them socially and economically.”

The Justice Ministry did not respond to The Korea Herald’s request for comments.