When we stand back and take a look around the world of today, it is easily noticeable that many countries have an expansive history of supporting migrants and refugees, and in many cases, they go onto enrich the society, whether we go back 5, 10 or more than 100 years. The people, fleeing violence and persecution are often escaping wars they had no choice in and are now hoping to try and go to ‘safe havens’, where they can try and live in places that stand as beacons of hope and freedom to the world. There are of course some who deny these facts and there are others who embrace it, but one thing for sure is that we are all members of one species no matter our skin colour or background, the human race.
What we have been witnessing for some time is a growing negative narrative towards immigrants and refugees, in particular, Muslims and people from the Middle East, coming into ‘our’ countries in search of hope and perhaps a faint chance at finding something we all want to call paradise. But I assure you the paradise they are searching for is not what we would consider one.
Paradise can often be associated with a place of exceptional happiness and delight, and I am sure every day each one of us at some point during the day scrolls through their Instagram feed searching for the perfect vacation spot, and our own piece of paradise, where we can escape from all our troubles and the realities that surround us. When we are sitting there in search of this place and our perfect happiness, I am sure we won’t generally be drawn towards South Korea and the small island of Jeju to its south. But for 549 people, it is currently being considered somewhat of a paradise in comparison to what they left behind.
The Yemeni refugee issue on the island has not had that much positive media attention in the last few months, and very rarely have we heard the stories of the refugees, who are currently awaiting an answer about their status from the Korean government. Since their arrival, between April and May 2018, it seems every time the issue gets some airspace, it is very negative, or we just see the Korean people protesting for their expulsion.
After spending some time talking with them when I visited Jeju recently it became apparent that coming to Korea was the only option they had, and I am without a doubt they never thought they would be living here in 2018. If it wasn’t for direct flights and visa-free access, which was suddenly then canceled in June after the influx of 550, I believe they would be home with their families, if it wasn’t for one somewhat small problem.
Of course, 549 may not sound like a big number in comparison to the amount of Syrian and other middle eastern refugees that travel through Turkey into Europe each year, with 198 thousand applicants registered in 2017, with Germany accounting for 31% of all first-time applicants in the EU-28. It was followed by Italy (127 thousand, or 20%), France (91 thousand, or 14%), Greece (57 thousand, or 9%), the United Kingdom (33 thousand, or 5%) and Spain (30 thousand, or 5%).
So, when just 550 Yemen refugees starting entering Jeju, apparently it was enough for South Koreans to take notice. In fact, it was enough for a Blue House (governmental) petition, that has now been signed by more than 700,000 people asking the Moon administration to expel them from the island. This, in my opinion, truly shows a poor mentality and a complete lack of awareness towards an issue, I am sure many Korean, if not foreigners as well, fail to understand, or perhaps don’t want to.
What we have witnessed over the last few weeks and months, is hundreds of Koreans taking to the streets of Seoul protesting, calling them “fake refugees” and accusing the Yemenis of being economic migrants. Online forums for mothers on Jeju that usually discuss pram reviews or the best preschool have turned overwhelmingly political in recent months.
And after visiting Jeju with a fellow director, in August, we spent some time talking with many of the locals, who don't really seem to be too bothered by the refugees being there.
Sitting in a small coffee shop in Jeju city we start discussing the refugee issue with a local resident who has lived on the island his entire life. He tells us, “Before talking to other people about the situation I felt a little negative towards them but now I have come to understand their situation a little more and I don’t really see any problem with them being here. Korean people tend to have this fear about things they don’t understand and are often unwilling, or open minded to change the fear into understanding. I think another big problem is the media and the somewhat negative information they show about the refugees. How can people understand another’s situation without discussion. I hope we can resolve this situation in the best way for everybody who is involved, especially people living in Jeju and the Yemen refugees”.
Yemen refugees searching for paradise but struggling to find a place to call home
Since arriving here the refugees have taken various art classes, cultural classes and language programmes to try to integrate themselves and some of the local residents working with them have grown very fond of them.
“...whenever I meet you I feel so happy. You are the person who makes people enjoy the moments with you. Thank you for coming here and being my friend”, writes a young girl who attended an art workshop with several of the Yemenis when they first arrived. This image itself paints a completely different story to what we are seeing in the mainstream and local media.
I wonder why we are not really seeing the stories of the refugees within the media and why the media is portraying them in such a negative light when they do. And when we look through the newspapers and online content about the issue we can see that others have not been so welcoming, “I am absolutely against having refugees,” one woman said.
Some also mentioned religion as a reason, “I really hate the thought of people with the religion of Islam living on Jeju in a large number”, and others point to the refugee crisis in Europe, and hope to avoid a similar fate for South Korea, “I used to live in Europe... and accepting the Muslim population is literally a crazy idea,” wrote another.
The most outspoken critics of the Yemenis have come from conservative Christian groups. A recent poll showed 49% of South Koreans were opposed to accepting the refugees, while 39% were in favour of accepting them. The more surprising poll showed that over 54% of 19-40 year old also opposed them being here.
South Korea has approved just 3 Syrian refugees since 2015.
One underlying point that does sit well for the Korean government and the anti-refugee protesters is the previous track record of refugee intake, which could give the Moon administration a very easy-out.
Since 2015, some 848 Syrian refugees have applied for refugee status here, with just 3, less than 1%, of them eventually be approved, the rest given humanitarian visas. And according to further statistics from the Ministry of Justice, 40,470 people have applied for refugee status since 1994 and Korea has accepted just 839 or 4.1%. In comparison to other countries approval ratios who are significantly higher, Germany 31.7%, Mexico 55.7%, Canada 51.8 and even the average OECD stands at 24.8%, six times higher than that of South Korea.
“The point of the policy is to ensure that these Syrians will return home once the civil war is over, so not to make their life here too comfortable,” said Kim Sung-in, secretary general of Nancen, a refugee advocacy group in Seoul. “It essentially leaves them to fend for themselves.” Twenty-eight Syrians who claimed asylum thereafter the Paris terrorist attacks in November languished in crowded, windowless rooms at the airport for up to eight months. They were allowed to enter South Korea in July to apply for refugee status, but only after human rights lawyers intervened and publicized their plight.
“They told us to go elsewhere,” said Ahmad, 23, one of the 28, who asked to be identified by his given name only. “But we had nowhere else to go, so we just waited and waited.”
To Korean immigration officials, fleeing war is not sufficient grounds for asylum, said Chae Hyun-young, a legal officer at the United Nations’ refugee office in Seoul. Applicants must also be at risk of persecution. “And they focus on whether the applicant has suffered persecution in the past, rather than whether they would suffer in the future if returned home,” Ms. Chae said.
Refugees are of course not new in South Korea, in fact, Korea itself was a refugee country during and after the Korean War, that ended in an armistice in 1953, with some estimates of the numbers of people displaced ranging widely, with anywhere from 1 million to more than 5 million forced to flee. So one could presume that a country that has been through a war, technically still not resolved, would have a better understanding of the issues surrounding refugees and show some form of empathy towards other countries going through a similar plight.
However, it is quite obvious to see their attitude towards refugees by looking at their own statistics on refugee intake. So, there is no doubt that we start wondering why and we must also question the relationships between the more powerful middle eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Korean government going forward, in particular towards the interests that lie in other countries, such as Yemen and Syria, who have reserves of resources such as oil and gold as well as the strategic location. Not to mention any potential nuclear deals, technology patents or clean energy opportunities in the future. So we need to tread lightly when looking at what people might consider just to be a refugee issue, and we can clearly see that these countries have a lot vested in Yemen already as well as other counties in the surrounding areas.
Human rights filmmakers attempt to re-shape the narrative
Coming back to today and why I actually became interested in the Yemen refugee issue in Jeju. Being based near Seoul and with only access to mainstream media and the Korean news for information about the issue, it doesn’t paint the whole picture. So, after living in Korea now since 2011 and working as a professor at a media university as well as a documentary director on films related to human rights issues, including a North Korean film about refugees, ‘While they Watched’ (2015), the Sewol ferry tragedy, ‘After the Sewol’ (2016) and ‘Crossroads’ (2017), another director came to discuss the idea of going to Jeju in order to plan a film about the Yemen refugee issue. So, we packed our equipment and headed to Gimpo airport in the South of Seoul.
When I woke up on the 10th August to the news of the Saudi-led bomb strike on Yemen I didn’t know what to think. I was going to meet people from a country already torn apart by war and now we are watching videos of their children being massacred. And after arriving in Jeju we spent several days driving around the island filming and location scouting, and then we made contact with the owner of Global Inner Peace, a non-profit and civil society organization that has been working with the refugees since they arrived. We arranged to go to their office to discuss the issue and organize a meeting with some refugees so we can listen to their stories.
As I walked into the room there was an air of silence. Men Sat around tables listening intently to the teacher stood in front of them. This is what a classroom should look like, keen students who are interested in learning something new and paying attention to their teacher. What you might not expect to see are ten men, of Arabic descent, trying to speak Korean.
Since the Yemen refugees arrived on Jeju in April and May 2018, they have clearly found it difficult to integrate into the society, but they are certainly trying their best and as I stand to observe their class it’s hard to believe that just 12 hours earlier another Saudi-led airstrike bombs down on a school bus killing at least 29 children.
We started to talk about the recent attack on the school bus that killed children on a field trip; 50 were killed and 77 injured, according to the ministry. Most of the children were inside the bus when the airstrike hit, according to a local medic, Yahya al-Hadi. The International Committee for the Red Cross said a hospital it supports in Saada had received 29 bodies of "mainly children" younger than 15, and 40 injured, including 30 children.
It is heartbreaking to see my home being destroyed and my people being killed.
“When I heard the news about the airstrike (on the 9th August) it was too painful to watch any videos. I am not a strong person and it is heartbreaking to see my home being destroyed and my people being killed. I want them to stop the killing! M tells me.
“Our children are going to school, like they do in any other country, in order to learn and play, and they get killed in this way. If this is the way they (Saudi Arabia) are wanting to help us, we don’t want any help” says Ali AlHutaiby, a 29-year-old refugee who used to be a student from Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen.
The pain from their eyes paints a picture in itself. Coming here without much choice to go anywhere else and now being treated almost like cattle, herded together, given schedules and in some cases curfews to live by each day. Around 50 of them are crammed into accommodation at the immigration office, sharing just 1 bathroom and others sharing small rooms between 5 people in local motels.
And As Ayman Gharaibeh, the UNHCR representative to Yemen recently said, “The world cannot afford to let Yemen slip into the abyss”, and I think he is absolutely right.
The conflict is also taking a toll on children’s access to education where we have seen a total of 20 incidents of attacks on schools were reported and verified. Schools have been hit during both ground operations and aerial attacks, and many are currently unfit for use due to damage, the presence of IDPs or occupation by armed groups. Some 2 million children are out of school, depriving them of an education and exposing them to child recruitment into armed groups and armed forces, or child marriage. Children who have experienced stressful situations are likely to show changes in social relations, behavior, physical reactions, and emotional response manifesting as sleeping problems, nightmares, withdrawal, problems concentrating and guilt. So, when we hear about attacks happening on school buses it makes it even more upsetting and distressed. These men fled for good reasons and now have to be judged by people who are not understanding the situation they escaped from.
Fortunately, the refugees on Jeju have received help from some communities here, mostly religious based or NGO’s, who are assisting them with food, accommodation, and schooling but all the really want is the fend for themselves and live a normal life.
“I just want to live a normal life, whatever that means, and I want to help people when I am in a position to do it. Given the choice I would go home tomorrow, of course, I want to see my family and friends but I can’t. If I go back I truly believe I will die”. M tells us over coffee.
When I came to Jeju, this was a place I dreamed to call ‘paradise’.
The war, since 2015, has torn the entire country of Yemen apart, with millions abandoning their homes searching for sanctuary elsewhere but due to the lack of money, it is extremely difficult for most to escape.
Coming back to the realities of Jeju, when talking with ‘M’, he wanted to remain anonymous, and is now awaiting the decision of his refugee status in Jeju tells me, “Back in Yemen I come from a successful family but it means nothing during war. My families house was destroyed, my entire family is scattered all over the place and now I am in Jeju island, 8000 km from my home. When I came to Jeju, this was a place I dreamed to call ‘paradise’ some 30 years ago as a child. I give thanks to God for bringing me to this place I try to call paradise and I hope to be able to live in a safe place, not a war zone. I believe that all humans need help within their lifetimes at some point and I want to be the one helping, but at this moment I am the one asking for some help and understanding”.
As we talk about their daily lives in Jeju it becomes clear that all he is thinking about is wanting to help those back in his home country but knowing if he were to return he would surely be caught in a war, enlisted into the armed forces and risk being potentially killed. He continues, “I want people to understand this was my (and our) only choice to leave. If we return (to Yemen) I am sure we would be killed or at least fighting in this terrible war. I wish that people could walk in my shoes to understand what I have been through and I hope that if I can share my story, people will start to understand just a little and realize that they don’t need to be afraid of us. I would like people to feel comfortable with us and just allow us to live like human beings”. M is a Yemeni refugee who wanted to remain anonymous for fear that his family and friends could suffer if he is seen on the news or social media speaking out against what is happening back in his home country.
The Yemen war, known as the forgotten war, has been raging for a long time and well before 2015 and if people can see that, understand the issues and try to help the refugees, perhaps we can start to bring back some decency to the world that seems to have lost all reason these days.
There is no question that Yemen is confronting a humanitarian crisis that has been exacerbated by the entry of the Saudi-led coalition into the war.
We took them to a coffee shop on the north coast of Jeju, not that far away from the immigration centre where around 50 others are staying and we talked about their lives back in Yemen and what they have been doing since arriving here in May. After coming from Malaysia where they were constantly trying to find work for around 3 years, what the Korean people don’t seem understand is they just simply didn’t have anywhere else to go, and so when they hear about the Yemen refugees in Jeju in the media they don’t have any interest in trying to understand the issue that brought them here in the first place.
Ali tells us he spent 6 days in the airport waiting to be interviewed for refugee status before being allowed to enter the island. We discussed the recent news and the related media and M tells us, “People shouldn’t believe the media from the middle east. They just tell misinformation and propaganda about Yemen and the issues we have. We are actually a very peaceful people and the media only concentrating on Syria. Why they don’t they talk more about Yemen and what we have gone through!”
It’s clear they are angry and upset about what is happening in Yemen but also they are powerless to do anything whilst residing in Jeju and you can sense the frustration about what is happening around their own situation.
They told us that they try to have contact with their relatives and friends every couple of weeks back in Yemen but due to the power issues and lack of cellular services it is becoming harder each week, and they echoed the UN report that said the situation is getting worse in Yemen. And after reading through the UN report published back in 2017 I can see exactly where they are coming from.
It is clear from the report that all parties to the conflict display a disregard for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law and impede the principled and timely delivery of humanitarian assistance and this can be seen with the 8,878 total reported incidents as of October 2017.
They are in a severe economic decline and in fact, there hasn’t even been electric there since 2011. On top of all of this the recent closures of Yemen’s ports (sea, land, and airports) on 6 November 2017 by the Saudi-led Coalition, threatens Yemenis’ lifelines and remains partially effective in Hudaydah, Salif and Sana’a. Within 24 hours of this, the prices for food, fuel, and water had soared, putting them out of reach of vulnerable populations, which highlights the volatility of the situation in Yemen.
The UN report goes on to say that this is the world’s largest man-made food security crisis Yemen is now the world’s largest man-made food security crisis. However, this crisis is not driven by a lack of food in the country but rather, Yemen’s food crisis is driven by factors constraining the supply, distribution and people’s diminishing purchasing power. Ongoing conflict and economic decline have steadily eroded people’s coping mechanisms, leaving large parts of the population at the risk of famine.
As we continue to talk with M and Ali they both nod their heads in agreement about it but all they seem to be thinking about at this moment are their own struggles.
It is almost unimaginable what is happening back in Yemen with over 22.1 million people in need of assistance and we are now sitting discussing the issues with men who are also trying to find their way in Jeju. On top of that, there are a lot of people in Korea who appear to want them to leave, and it would also appear that a vast majority of them don’t have any idea about the situation itself.
The costs of this terrible war rise higher and higher... We have to wake up to the reality of what is happening in Yemen.
The refugees in Jeju just want their voices to be heard and want people to understand why they came here. A plight not so dissimilar to that of the Sewol ferry victims families, who I spent 3 years filming with, and who fought for that entire time for their voices to be heard, and all within their own country. Perhaps that in itself shows the mentality of this incredibly insular society and in particular the attitude of the previous administrations. So, one does wonder how these Yemeni strangers will continue to be received in the future.
However, I am a firm believer that once the Korean people gain a much better understanding of the situation they will be more accepting and allow them to try and create a normal life for themselves, which in turn will help them to earn some money that they can then send back to their families in Yemen. This money can be used to support the and booster the local economy in some small part, hopefully bringing back some normality to their lives in general.
The golden rule by which we should live.
A golden rule in life that I very much practice is the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated. It is the maxim of many religions and societies but what we seem to be witnessing from a vast majority of people in South Korea is almost the complete opposite. I myself would urge each and every Korean to take a good hard look in the mirror. Look at your grandparents and your own country's history. See how the rest of the world treated them when they were caught up in the Korean War. Now, try and put yourselves in the shoes of these young Yemeni men and women who had no choice but to flee their own war-torn country in search of a place they could try to call paradise, perhaps not what we all think of one but to them it is a paradise that they hope to be able to call a second home one day.
When I came to Jeju to talk with the refugees I did not consider how deep this issue is rooted. This issue is not just about the Yemen refugees, it goes a lot deeper than that, but at the heart of it is; Can we allow ourselves to turn a blind eye to these growing human rights issues that are taking place all over the world and sometimes right next door?
We can only understand these issues when we open our eyes, our ears, and our minds, and what I witnessed after the Sewol ferry tragedy and the empowerment of the South Korean people is now being heavily diminished by their attitude towards the Yemen refugees.
So, I hope these people can wake up and realise that we are all human beings at the end of the day and try thinking about a very simple ideology known as the golden rule. It says, “Before one performs an action which might harm another person, try to imagine yourself in their position, and consider whether you would want to be the recipient of that action. If you would not want to be in such a position, the other person probably would not either, and so you should not do it”.
This is the basic and fundamental human trait of empathy, the ability to vicariously experience how another is feeling, that makes this possible, and it is the principle of empathy by which we should live our lives.
In writing this piece I wanted to try and shed some more light into the Yemen refugee issue in Jeju and ultimately I hope people can start to understand and then feel some empathy for what their country has been through and what they now experiencing. I will leave you with the words of M, a young male Yemeni striving to make a way for himself here and for people to listen to his story.
“I believe that all humans need help at some point within their lifetime, and I truly want to be the one helping, but at this moment I am the one asking people to help and understand me”.
Neil P. George is an assistant professor lecturing on documentary production in the Visual Production department at Dong-Ah Institute of Media and Arts. He is also a documentary director producing films related to South Korea and human rights issues.