For ten days, Fathi Okil has only drunk a saltwater mix. South Korean authorities have sent an ambulance five times to where he is camped out in front of the Interior Ministry, but he just sends them away.
“I am not leaving and I am not stopping my hunger strike until they approve my request for political asylum or I die,” he tells MEMO.
A former printing technician, Fathi arrived in Seoul in May 2014 after being arrested at a protest outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo as demonstrators took to the streets to protest the army’s take-over of power.
“I visited South Korea in 2002,” Fathi says on why he chose the East Asian nation after he was released from jail. “I really liked the country and the people, so I went back. I thought I would find human rights and justice here.”
At this time, South Korea offered Egyptians visa-free travel and many who escaped the creeping political persecution back home arrived, then tried to seek asylum in the country. But years later they are still waiting to be recognised.
Korea is one of the hardest of the developed countries to apply for asylum in – between 2010 and 2020 Korea accepted just 1.3 per cent of refugee applications.
It’s been almost nine years since Fathi landed in Seoul and he has still not secured political asylum there. During the lengthy process he has appealed several times, waited years for an interview and in the process lost his right to work.
He recalls one particularly tough part of the process: “I couldn’t afford food, so I ate from rubbish bins. I slept in the street, and not only this – I suffered intense racism.”
After studying Fathi’s interview, his lawyer found that authorities had falsified his statements, doctoring them to make it sound as though he came to South Korea for a better life.
Even though his lawyer was able to prove his testimony was fabricated, his asylum request was rejected.
Two years ago an Egyptian human rights campaigner in South Korea had a similar story to tell: in his asylum interview Darwish Musab said that he was at risk of political persecution, but his interview was recorded to make it appear he was looking for work and that he planned to return home after making a lot of money.
In 2020 the National Human Rights Commission of Korea released a report which confirmed that asylum seekers’ testimony has been falsified, mistranslated, recorded inaccurately, or omitted by immigration officials to give the impression they were economic migrants.
According to the panel, the applications of some 2,000 asylum seekers from Arab countries may not have been fairly reviewed between September 2015 and June 2018.
They also found that in 2016 roughly 94.4 per cent of Egyptian applicants went through a speedy refugee screening system, which shortened the screening process from months to less than a week. This is compared to 69 per cent of other nationals.
One human rights lawyer told the Korea Herald that the speedy refugee system “largely served as a tool to reject refugee applications based on prejudice that applicants were abusing the refugee law for economic opportunities.”
Then in late 2018, the Korean government abolished visa-free travel to the country for Egyptians.
Fathi’s wife lives in Egypt, and he has not seen her for almost a decade. He has three sons, one who is mentally disabled, another who is a former political prisoner himself and lives in exile in Bahrain.
“If I am granted political asylum, I will have the right to work and provide for myself,” Fathi says.
In 2018 Abdelrahman Zeid, who was then also a former Egyptian political prisoner living in South Korea, started a hunger strike with a friend calling on the South Korean government to speed up the process of recognition for all asylum seekers.
Abdelrahman complained that he was once attacked in the street and received a series of abusive and racist messages. A vet in his home country, during the asylum interview he was questioned about his parents’ separation, his own divorce and then rejected for allegedly entering a sham marriage.
He is now living in Taiwan, where he says he feels like a “normal citizen”.
“Korea is not and will never be a home for any kind of foreigner, no matter whether they are an investor, a foreign spouse or they are a refugee,” Abdelrahman tells MEMO.
“There are some foreigners who have acquired Korean citizenship, but even they don’t feel at home.”