In December 2012 Abdelrahman Zaid became one of the thousands of civilians to be incarcerated in Mubarak’s sweep to end the Arab Spring. At the time of his arrest he was holding documents to say he was a Palestinian refugee due to his father’s origin and the media used this to depict him as a foreigner who had come to Egypt to make trouble. He was sentenced to five years in prison and left Egypt in six days.
As he searched for somewhere to go Abdelrahman found that unlike the US and Europe South Korea offered Egyptians visa-free travel. He had the impression that South Korea was “a nice country with a good economy” and on top of this, in 1994 it had become a signatory of the UN refugee convention. He landed in Seoul on 4 April 2016.
In total, since South Korea joined the treaty, 3,244 Egyptians have made the same decision and applied for asylum in the country, which makes them the third largest nationality in terms of volume of applications. However, as Abdelrahman was soon to find out, South Korea might be easy to get to but it has a history of intimidation, animosity and discrimination towards refugees, particularly if you are Muslim.
It took more than ten months for Abdelrahman to be invited for his first interview; once inside he was asked absurd questions about his parents’ separation and his own divorce. In the end he was rejected for a handful of reasons, including suspicion that he had entered into a sham marriage. He appealed over a year ago and is yet to receive a reply.
Abdelrahman is not the first Egyptian to complain of such treatment. In the summer an Egyptian asylum seeker complained that the Korean translation of his interview at the immigration office was not true to his word – though he had escaped political oppression at home, the transcript stated that he did not fear persecution.
In general, there is a lack of highly qualified Arabic speakers in South Korea, which means vital details in the stories are regularly omitted. Other times interviews are translated falsely or simply made up by the immigration officer or interpreter though this is hard to prove as many of the conversations are not recorded.
Less than one per cent of refugees are accepted in South Korea, and even then the majority of these are approved by the courts and not the immigration office. The first non-Korean to be accepted was an Ethiopian and that wasn’t until 2001.
“There is systematic manipulation here in Korea,” says Abdelrahman. “South Korea don’t welcome refugees at all.”
This is not just a top-down approach. Abdelrahman has received abuse and racist messages, as have many of his friends. One was assaulted in the street yet even this has not mobilised the government.
“Until now the Ministry of Justice did nothing, as if they are happy with that, as if this is the new idea to solve the refugee problem – leaving them to the people, leaving people to be assaulted and to be killed one day. We are afraid,” he says.
Between January and May the arrival of over 550 Yemeni refugees to the popular tourist destination of Jeju Island off the southern coast of South Korea gained significant attention after a petition was submitted to the presidential website asking that the government abolish or at least amend its visa-free policy. The signatories exceeded 700,000.
In response the government agreed to make its refugee policy even stricter, hiring more personnel to sift through the applications and spot potential terrorists or perpetrators of violent crime. In May Yemen was struck off the list of visa-free countries.
In 2016 reports surfaced of 28 Syrian refugees who were kept in overcrowded, windowless rooms at Incheon Airport for eight months, rather than allowing them into the country to apply for refugee status.
Syrians report working with no health insurance and being forced to live on humanitarian visas, which limits their ability to find work, access healthcare and have family members join them. It’s a far cry from South Korea’s obligations as a signatory of the refugee convention which stipulates the rights of refugees should be respected and protected.
Abdelrahman is from a prosperous family in Egypt. He himself was a vet and his sisters are bank managers. Like other asylum seekers in the country his family are desperate to hear news that he is safe.
“I had a very good life in Egypt. When I came to Korea I had to come [but now I’ve] wasted too much money, I suffered a hard life here in Korea and until now I cannot even see any kind of stability [in my life], even in the future.”
The Korean government are really irresponsible. They are wasting our lives as if it was nothing
Out of desperation from two and a half years in the country in limbo over their status, in mid-August Abdelrahman and his Egyptian friend – whose wife has just given birth to their first son –– began a hunger strike outside the Presidential Blue House, calling on the government to speed up the process of recognition for all asylum seekers.
“Someone has to do something, that’s why I started this hunger strike. I feel very weak but I try to be strong,” he says.
Abdelrahman’s strike has attracted considerable media attention to the point that he has become something of a mini celebrity in the country. Not everyone in Korea is against asylum seekers – a poll published this year said 49.1 per cent are opposed whilst 39 per cent support refugees. The government, however, has yet to take any meaningful action.
“We hope that they respond soon before we die here,” says Abdelrahman.