Jeju, South Korea – More than 550 Yemeni nationals have arrived on South Korea’s Jeju island since April 2018 seeking asylum and refugee status.
Jeju island, unlike mainland South Korea, offered visa-free arrival for various nationalities, including Yemen, to boost tourism. But the arrival of the Yemenis, mostly from Malaysia – to which they had fled to from war-torn Yemen, sparked online outcry and protests on the island, as well as the capital, Seoul.
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The asylum seekers were termed “fake refugees” because they were mostly male, were wearing proper clothes and had smartphones.
More than 700,000 South Koreans filed an online petition urging the government to stop its visa-free policy for Yemen. Protesters demanded the government to refuse asylum and deport the Yemenis.
In response, South Korea took Yemen off the list of countries that were offered visa-free entry onto Jeju and announced plans to tighten the country’s Refugee Act, a move seen by critics as supportive to the protesters’ demands.
Al Jazeera spoke to Mohammad Salem, a Yemeni asylum seeker who is in Jeju with wife and his son, on his journey from Yemen, his three years in Malaysia and his feelings towards South Korea, Islamophobia and not being able to find work and leave Jeju:
My country is at war. We are under attack. There are missiles falling on our heads. And we are termed “fake refugees”. If we are fake, tell me who is real and genuine.
If these people know Yemen and the situation there, and still call us fake refugees, then I’m at a loss to see the real definition of refugees. There’s not a single problem that doesn’t exist in Yemen right now.
These people also say the asylum seekers are mostly young males. That’s because anyone who got a chance to flee did so. We all have families back home. I got my wife to flee as soon as I got a chance. Others haven’t been able to because of the situation or money.
I had a good life in Yemen. I was working at Sanaa airport and had my small business on the side. But the war left me in a bad shape. I thought I was going to lose my mind. I thought the Saudis would fix the problem, but they made it worse and worse.
When I got married, I bought lots of gold and expensive gifts for my wife. And then I had to ask her to sell the gold to fund my trip out of Yemen. She obliged and all she was left with was a small necklace.
I left Yemen in September 2015. I was based in Hodeidah from where I moved to Sanaa and arrived in Oman, all by road.
I then flew into Malaysia, where I spent the next three years hoping that it’d be a temporary stay and the situation in Yemen will improve so I could return.
The Malaysian immigration officials told us we are allowed to enter and stay but not to get jobs. Although that didn’t help us, we were thankful to Malaysia for at least allowing us to enter, unlike many, many other countries.
I found a dish-washing job at a restaurant to cover my expenses. It was difficult. I worked for 16-17 hours a day and for the first two months, I had no day off. There was no time to rest. My health was deteriorating but I had to work to pay for myself and my wife who I managed to get to Malaysia after a few months.
I was working, eating and sleeping in the restaurant.
My wife got pregnant in Malaysia and we didn’t have any medical cover, only a little gold left from the wedding. We sold that and the wedding ring to cover the maternity charges. It was very difficult for us. But at least our baby was here and we’re still alive.
We respected Malaysia but we had to move on to survive. It was very difficult for us. Then, I heard about Jeju’s visa-free policy. So, I thought, “Why not?”
As soon as I got an exit stamp at Kuala Lumpur airport, I felt like a bird set free after a long time in a cage. As the plane took off, I felt I was flying. When I got off the plane, I took a deep breath. It felt great to be on Jeju island.
We applied for refugee status but when we got the cards a few days later, we realised we could not leave the island. That’s something we didn’t know before.
Jeju was like a dream. But there weren’t enough jobs, only in restaurants, fishing farms and out in the sea. And the employers didn’t give jobs to those with families.
Those who got jobs found it difficult too – working for 18-20 hours a day, getting physically assaulted by the employers and not being able to speak the language. Life was difficult at home and life was difficult here, too.
Some people worked for 45 days and left without being paid.
Life was difficult at home and life was difficult here too
I came to Jeju with $2,000 only because I thought I’d be able to go to Seoul for work. That money started running out. I paid for a hotel and food. This was Ramadan and we only had one meal a day but I had no job.
I didn’t want my wife and son to sleep on the streets. I didn’t want the Koreans thinking bad about us, about how we came to their beautiful island and sleep on the streets.
Maybe the Koreans had experienced Arab visitors before, but only from the rich countries coming there for short holidays, not refugees from war-torn Yemen. They didn’t know our background and what we’ve been through.
Koreans helping out
Just two days before my hotel booking ran out, I was lucky enough to get help from a local Korean family who gave us shelter in their house. I can’t explain how relieved I was that my wife and son wouldn’t go homeless.
Now, we’ve been with that family for two months. They buy food and toys for the baby and take care of our needs, too. I’m working at the refugee community centre helping out with translation. Life is slightly better for me, much better than a lot of other Yemenis on Jeju island.
I hope Koreans’ impression of Yemenis and Muslims change soon. A Korean channel interviewed me and asked why we treat our women so badly. I asked her if she’s ever been to an Arab country or met any Arab lady? She said, “no”.
I told her a woman in our country is a mother, sister, daughter, wife. Basically, your second hand. She is a doctor and a teacher.
And I assured her that if the war in Yemen ends today, she will not see me in Korea after five days.
This first-person account was edited for clarity and brevity.