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Yemeni asylum-seekers spark backlash in South Korea

Ed Jones, AFP | Anti-immigration protesters in Seoul on June 30, 2018.

A few hundred Yemeni asylum-seekers have sparked an unprecedented wave of xenophobia in South Korea, with protests breaking out in Seoul, while a record 700,000 people signed a petition calling for the tightening of already tough refugee laws.


The arrival of around 550 people from war-ravaged Yemen between January and May sparked an uncompromising reaction, with South Koreans warning that the refugees could be seeking economic advantage rather than protection and that they could lead to an increase in crime and other social problems.

"Is the government crazy? These are Muslims who will rape our daughters!" was one of the top comments, liked by thousands, on Naver, the country's top Internet portal.

The protests have come as the UN has warned of a "catastrophic" humanitarian disaster in the world's poorest Arab nation, where a Saudi-led military assault on Shiite rebels have killed nearly 10,000 people, 2,200 of them children, and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International warned that "egregious" human rights violations in a string of Yemeni prisons run by the United Arab Emirates could amount to war crimes.

While more than a million arrived in Germany after its borders were opened in 2015 to asylum-seekers, the numbers in South Korea have been relatively low. Of the 550-odd refugees who arrived in the southern resort island of Jeju, more than 430 Yemenis have applied for refugee status, according to South Korean officials.

'Kick out fake refugees'

Hundreds protested in Seoul last month urging authorities to "kick out fake refugees" while nearly 700,000 -- a record -- signed a petition on the presidential website calling for tightening what are already some of the world's toughest refugee laws.

"Europe may have historical baggage with countries (former colonies)... but South Korea has no such moral obligation," the petition said.

Refugees are largely an alien concept in the Asian country where only around four percent of the population are foreigners, mostly from China and Southeast Asia.

Discrimination against them is widespread. Many are openly mocked on public transport for being "dirty" or "smelly", and refused entry to fancy restaurants or public baths.

A government survey in 2015 showed that 32 percent of South Koreans do not want a foreigner as a neighbour -- far higher than 14 percent in the US and China's 12.2 percent.

The Yemenis took advantage of visa-free access to the tourist island of Jeju. The loophole, intended to boost visitors to the destination, has been closed to other Yemenis following the uproar.

A recent opinion poll showed about half of South Koreans oppose accepting the Yemeni asylum-seekers, with 39 percent in favour and 12 percent undecided.

Park Seo-young, a 20-year-old college student from Daejeon, was against.

"I heard that Yemen has a very poor record in women's rights... and I'm afraid that the island will become more dangerous than before and the crime rate will go up," she told AFP.

Another student, Han Eui-mi, added: "Why should they come all the way to Korea when there are many countries nearby?"

'Dead bodies everywhere'

Around 40 of the new arrivals are staying at a nondescript hotel in Jeju City.

Packed four to a room to save money, they take turns to cook traditional Yemeni meals in a basement communal area.

Mohammed Salem Duhaish has been given refuge by a local family, along with his wife and eight-month-old son.

Formerly a worker at Sana'a international airport, he fled after Houthi rebels -- who are fighting a Saudi-led military alliance -- blew up a nearby airbase.

There were "dead bodies beside you everywhere, and fighting, gunshots and bombs", he told AFP.

Duhaish paid a broker $600 for a visa to Oman. From there, he went to Malaysia, where he worked illegally for three years.

The 33-year-old had once hoped to go to the US, where he has several relatives, but gave up on the idea once the anti-immigration Trump became president.

Instead, he decided to head for South Korea.

Duhaish said he learned about the country from the Korean television dramas popular across Asia, adding: "We want the Korean government and Korean people to accept us and deal with us as people who need help."

Many of the other arrivals on Jeju have also spent years in Malaysia, raising questions over whether they had already had an opportunity to claim asylum.

How to treat people like Mohammed will be a key test of human rights in South Korea, said Seoul's left-leaning Kyunghyang daily.

Millions are believed to have fled the peninsula during Japan's brutal 1910-45 colonial rule and the 1950-53 Korean War.

"All the tragic events in our modern history drove countless people to leave the country against their will and rely on others' goodwill in other countries," it said.

"Embracing these refugees is an opportunity for us to pay back the debt we owe to the international community."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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