From Syria to S.Korea : The Plight of Refugees, A Shame for Several

Another day, the full consternation of human tragedy unfolding on the shores of Mediterranean Sea has befallen.The photograph of a deceased five-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean and washed ashore on the Turkish coast shook the world on September 2. How many countless such heartbreaking stories are happening in the absence of the media’s attention. Large numbers of Syrians have become innocent victims of political instability in Syria. The Syria conflict has triggered the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since the World War II. Humanitarian needs continue to rise, population displacements are increasing,and an entire generation of children is being exposed to war and violence, increasingly deprived of basic services, education and protection. Although humanitarianism and refugee protection have become international norms after World War II, in this part of the world they still remain after a fashion largely Western concepts.

Along with Turkey, Lebanon and Sweden, not long ago Germany emerged as a beacon for refugees. It is changing its laws to fill worker shortages by accepting Syrian refugees.German authorities have recently reported that they are expecting to welcome from 800,000 to up to 1.5 million asylum seekers this year.

Here comes a question: How about some other countries in Asia? According to Amnesty International, Japan and South Korea have so far offered zero resettlement places. South Korea and Japan are both signatories to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which obliges them to protect and provide refugees with basic rights and social services. However, their records of accepting asylum seekers are appallingly low. In case of Japan, although the government pledged US $200,000 in humanitarian aid for Middle East countries engaged in fighting ISIS and political instability, it was not prepared to change its policy to accommodate Syrian refugees. In 2014 the Justice Ministry received a record of 5000 asylum applications — 1740more than in the previous year — but accepted just eleven. Korea is also under growing pressure to join international efforts to grant asylum to Syrian refugees. Korea only approved 3.6 percent or 331 of the 9,155 asylum seekers from 2010 to July 2015 as refugees, according to the Ministry of Justice’s data.But unfortunately only three of the 331 successful applicants were Syrians. So what do these numbers show about the number of refugees that can be counted on the fingers of one hand about how South Korea is dealing with this humanitarian crisis?

Human rights activists claim that Seoul is being too restrictive in practicing the United Nations (U.N.) 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees even after adopting it in 1992 and becoming the first Asian nation in July 2013 to pass a comprehensive refugee law. Introduced by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the 1951 document has served as a cornerstone in defining refugees and their rights. A refugee is a person “who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership or a particular social-group or political opinion.” The government says most of the Syrians are not refuges because they escaped from their homeland due to a war, not due to state-perpetrated violations on issues related to the set of five criteria stipulated by the U.N., Kim Seong-in, the director of the Seoul- based civic group Nansen, said during a telephone interview with The Korea Times last week. Another activist agreed,saying the 1951 document should be applied case by case and concluded that it’s the government’s responsibility to come up with a “filtering system” to distinguish refugees who really need our help and give them relevant support.

So, assuming that every single country follows the 1951document and refuses a far greater proportion of those applicants, how far can humanitarian ethics go? Powerful images of people crossing long distances over train lines and the sea have created a widespread sense of crisis worldwide.But much of this tragedy and chaos is avoidable. Simple policy decisions by countries that have agreed to accept large numbers of refugees could halt the mass exodus. In the age of budget airlines and modern consular screening capabilities, such perilous journeys are not necessary.

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