Anti-Refugee Backlash In South Korea Targets Yemenis Fleeing War And Seeking Asylum More than 500 Yemenis are awaiting asylum decisions on a South Korean resort island that allowed them to arrive visa-free. Their presence has sparked nationwide protests.
NPR logo

Anti-Refugee Backlash In South Korea Targets Yemenis Fleeing War And Seeking Asylum

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/625915526/626094210" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Anti-Refugee Backlash In South Korea Targets Yemenis Fleeing War And Seeking Asylum

Anti-Refugee Backlash In South Korea Targets Yemenis Fleeing War And Seeking Asylum

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/625915526/626094210" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than 500 refugees from war-torn Yemen have found themselves in an unlikely place - the tiny resort island of Jeju in South Korea. The Yemenis are hoping for asylum to stay there. But as they wait, they're catching backlash from South Koreans. NPR's Elise Hu has this story from Jeju.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: On a docked fishing boat on Jeju's northwestern shore...

EBRAHIM QAID: Yeah, aboji.

HU: ...Ebrahim Qaid kind calls his Korean boss aboji, or dad. It's a term of endearment in Korean.

QAID: I love Korea. I love Korea, really.

HU: Qaid found work on this 29-ton boat welding floorboards and making fixes before the ship heads back out to sea. He's doing the kind of jobs most Koreans don't want.

QAID: I was student in Yemen. But because of the war, I need to work for - help my family in Yemen.

HU: He is one of the 561 Yemenis who arrived here since January, thanks to Jeju's policy of allowing foreign nationals to enter without having a visa in advance. They were fleeing a four-year war with no end in sight.

QAID: Because in Yemen, don't have war, don't have anything. Don't have light, don't have hospital.

HU: No lights?

QAID: No lights. For four years, don't have light.

HU: The ongoing civil war has taken out more than infrastructure. It's killed thousands of civilians. And Yemen is teetering on the brink of famine. Another Yemeni in Jeju, Omar al-Wahaishi, she, says young men are being forced to choose sides and become conscripts. To avoid that, he fled.

OMAR AL-WAHAISHI: We said, we refuse this kind of politics, that we will not go fight. We don't want to fight. And so if I go back to my city directly, I will be imprisoned or maybe executed. It's same fate because if I go to prison, I will not get out.

HU: He can't go home, but he and others may not get to stay, either.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Korean).

HU: "Citizens come first. We want safety," crowds chanted in the streets of Seoul Saturday. Some 1,000 demonstrators showed up to rally against the influx of Yemenis. Their arrival threw South Korea into a national debate over its responsibility in the global migration crisis.

CHRISTOPHER HAN: They came here without proper legal, you know, process.

HU: Demonstrator Christopher Han says too many foreigners are getting in.

HAN: We are in a position to help them. But the truth is that - the reality is that we have been used by them.

HU: Protesters held up signs saying get out and calling the Yemenis fake refugees. Han says his top concern is violence against locals.

HAN: But it is all about their different idea and belief system. I mean, they're Muslims - different idea and different belief system.

HU: On June 1, South Korean president Moon Jae-in's government ended the visa-free entrance policy for anyone from Yemen, effectively closing the border to Yemeni refugees. The ones already here are blocked from leaving Jeju Island. And half a million Koreans have signed a petition asking the Moon government to turn away refugees by changing policy.

SHARON YOON: I didn't expect Korea to welcome refugees with open arms, right?

HU: Sharon Yoon is a professor of Korean Studies at Seoul's Ehwa University. She's not surprised, as South Korea is 96 percent native Korean. Until 2007, the education system taught students it was ethnically homogenous, a single-blooded nation.

YOON: Yes, there is a lot of pushback. But civil society and xenophobia is not the whole picture. The sense that, like, there is a backlash of accepting refugees all over the world - and Korea is one of those countries.

HU: On Jeju, some Korean employers, like fishing boat owner Lee Shee-hyun, take a why-not attitude to giving Yemenis work.

LEE SHEE-HYUN: (Speaking Korean).

HU: "If they're willing to head out to sea, I'll keep employing them," he tells us.

Omar al-Wahaishi says he's encountered only kindness from Koreans he's met. For those who are less welcoming...

WAHAISHI: I want to give them the message that we are ordinary people. We want to live in peace. We want to live in - safe. And we don't want to cause any problem for anybody. So I hope they understand that we are a peaceful people.

HU: He's now 5,000 miles away from war. His fate, like the 500 others, is in the hands of the Korean government. Elise Hu, NPR News, Jeju, South Korea.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.