Seoul, South Korea – More than 500 Yemenis have applied for refugee status on South Korea’s Jeju island.
The influx has provoked debate over how the country handles refugees, including an online backlash, a petition for the government to take action and protests on Jeju and the capital Seoul.
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This also prompted the government to remove Yemen from the list of countries whose citizens are allowed visa-free entry to Jeju and to tweak its refugee policy.
A strong anti-refugee sentiment has been seen in South Korea, driven largely by Islamophobia, that analysts say is caused mostly by ignorance among the population and the prevalence of fake news stories.
Al Jazeera spoke to Heinn Shin, Korea spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), about the causes of xenophobia, the government’s role in calming fears and rooting out fake news and why the agency is not at the forefront of helping these refugees.
Al Jazeera: What role is UNHCR Korea playing in this current refugee crisis? Why is it not actively involved in assisting and helping these refugees on Jeju island?
Heinn Shin: Different UNHCR offices have different roles. For a place like Korea, which is an advanced country with its own refugee system, we play a supporting role. We don’t directly help out in supporting refugees. We can’t do anything that the government didn’t ask us to. If we don’t like something, we can release a statement but we can’t go out and action anything.
Al Jazeera: So does the Korean government have that ability?
Shin: Of course. It has its own refugee system.
Al Jazeera: But why are there so many protests, discrimination and harassment of the refugees? Is the government playing an active role?
Shin: Comparatively speaking, Korea has a very young refugee history. It’s traditionally a very homogenous country so it’s not just about refugees or migrants. It’s about outsiders, non-Koreans in general. Korea is in a developing stage and UNHCR is supporting the government to play that role better.
Al Jazeera: Are you happy with the role the government is playing? It seems to have listened to the protesters?
Shin: We have to give credit to the Korean government. It already knew the public wouldn’t be open to the idea of receiving more refugees, but despite that, it went ahead and enacted a stand-alone refugee act.
Al Jazeera: What do you mean the government knew the public wouldn’t be open to refugees? Isn’t that an obvious case of xenophobia?
Shin: Korea is geographically at a long distance from refugee hotspots. Decades ago, we had a system to bring in migrant labour from different Asian countries and there was huge public backlash. As a Korean, I can say that Koreans are not open to the idea of opening up.
Al Jazeera: Is that a cultural thing? Or a lack of knowledge?
Shin: It’s a mixture of everything. But one unique thing about the Yemeni refugee situation is that it’s the first time Koreans got to think about Islam. In a way that’s a good thing. This will serve as a great chance for the public to understand Islam better.
It’s also very important that UNHCR plays a balanced role. There are certain things that the government can do better but it also has to reflect what the public wants. And for us to criticise what the government does could cause backlash, not against the government, but against the refugees. We provide support where necessary.
Al Jazeera: So the government’s decision to take Yemen, and other countries where refugees might come from, off the visa-free list, is reflecting public opinion then?
Shin: Yes, definitely. The Jeju government did that. There were concerns among the public, albeit based on wrong information. There were concerns not just about employment but also about security. There were lots of females talking about it so I do think the government had to take that into account.
Al Jazeera: These Yemenis were also branded fake refugees. What is a fake refugee?
Shin: There’s a refugee and not a refugee. There are no fake refugees. That’s our message. This phrase stems from the fact that these Yemenis are male, young, flew to Jeju and carry iPhones. So it’s ignorance on the Koreans’ part. They don’t understand these people are fleeing persecution. You can be rich or poor but when a war breaks out, that doesn’t matter. There’s xenophobia, not against refugees but against Muslims. They also don’t understand Islamic culture. And the fake news about extremism fuels these fears.
I don’t think any Korean who has ever met a refugee or a Muslim would be against them. UNHCR’s role should be trying to explain to the general public who these refugees are. And I’m afraid, UNHCR has failed in that role for many years.
And we’ve only just realised that. Because we had no idea, despite the country having 150,000 Muslims, that the public would be so cautious and concerned. And telling the government to choose between their rights or the refugees’ rights.
Al Jazeera: Since UNHCR has not been playing an active role, what does it need to do more of?
Shin: We need to support the government. We also need to continue persuading the public. As the refugee and asylum seekers’ population grows in Korea, it can’t be the government’s role to do everything. We and the civil society would need to help out.
It’s our message to the public as well as that if you’re happy to help out that Syrian kid in the TV ad through donations, would you receive him if he was to come to Korea? It’s that message we’re trying to deliver. In a country like Korea, it’s strange to see someone who doesn’t look like you and speak the same language. It’ll take us time to solve this but I’m sure it can be solved.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.