President Moon Jae-in has ordered officials to look into the current Yemeni refugee situation on Jeju Island.
Presidential Spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom also told a press briefing Tuesday that as of June first, Yemen has been added to the list of countries whose passport holders cannot enter South Korea without a visa.
Regarding the 500 Yemeni refugees already on Jeju Island, the spokesman said the government lifted a restriction preventing them from getting a job for the first six months. The government is also providing food and medical services and enforcing patrols to ensure safety.
The president’s order comes as a debate is emerging about the number of refugees being allowed into the country, especially Jeju. In recent weeks, the resort island has seen a flood of refugees from Yemen, sparking concerns among residents.
The Yemeni people are fleeing a civil war in their country that has been ongoing since 2015.
More than 500 Yemeni refugees have entered Jeju Island this year. Their entries were facilitated by the 30-day visa waiver offered by Jeju, but because of the recent escalation, authorities have excluded Yemen from its list of countries whose people are allowed visa-free entry.
Government data show 948 foreign nationals have applied for refugee status this year as of the end of May. The majority of the 561 refugees from Yemen who landed in Korea as of mid-June have applied for refugee status, with over 90 percent of them being men.
Jeju Province and the Immigration Office said they would take a humanitarian approach, but the surge of refugees is stirring controversy among local residents. Opponents voice concerns about security and the safety of children.
In a nationwide survey of 500 adults conducted on Wednesday, pollster Realmeter found around 49 percent opposed granting refugee status to hundreds of people from war-torn Yemen, while 39 percent supported the idea. The survey had a confidence level of 95 percent, with a margin of error of four-point-four percentage points.
A petition on the presidential office’s Web site demanding a ban on refugees is also picking up steam, garnering more than 250-thousand signatures.
Civic groups claim Korea is far from tolerant on refugee matters citing statistics that only two percent of the over 38-thousand asylum seekers since 1993 were granted refugee status.
The Seoul-based Center for Refugee Rights argues the application process itself is very arduous and time consuming, and that a tiny number of employees are in charge of deliberating thousands of asylum requests.
Korea’s refugee policy is now being put to the test following the situation in Jeju. Experts call for taking this opportunity to completely review and overhaul related policy measures.